To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the top selling books of all time, and for good reason.* It is poetic in language, sincere in theme, and impeccable in delivery. It is one of the best that I have ever read, if not the best. Just as I read Gone with the Wind about four times throughout high school (I was entranced with Scarlett O’Hara’s gumption and later, her strength), TKAM fascinated me for its poignant portrayal of one of my country’s darkest eras.
The Jim Crow Era lasted from after the Civil War/Reconstruction (1877) clear through to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. That’s right, folks…nearly 100 years was spent pushing black Americans into corners, making them use back doors and separate water fountains, and in general not treating them like human beings. In TKAM Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman, and despite overwhelming evidence against that accusation, he is found guilty and sent to prison. He attempts to flee the prison and is shot dead by a guard. A towns person later says of Tom’s attempt,
You know how they are. Easy come, easy go. Just shows you, that Robinson boy was legally married, they say he kept himself clean, went to church and all that, but when it comes down to the line the veneer’s mighty thin. Nigger always comes out in ’em.
That kind of blanket statement that criticized the entire race was commonplace during that era, even among the most educated people. In fact, many Christians were known for preaching about the uncleanliness of blacks, a matter that simply was not grounded in any Biblical fact whatsoever. Dill, best friend of Scout (the precocious narrator) recognizes the unfair treatment during the trail of Tom. Crying, he said to Scout and a white landowner and black sympathizer,
The way that man called him ‘boy’ all the time an’ sneered at him, an’ looked around at the jury every time he answered…It ain’t right, somehow it ain’t right to do ’em that way. Hasn’t anybody got any business talkin’ like that—it just makes me sick.
The book was set in the 1930s, but published in 1961 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It (pleasantly) surprises me that a white woman from Alabama would pen a book that didn’t just turn the heads of Civil Rights leaders, the Pulitzer Prize committee, educators, and the entire country – it gave them all whiplash. It was picked up by international publishers and translated into more than 40 languages. People felt drawn to the sad truth coming from the South. Most importantly, from within the South.
While blacks may have equal rights today, make no mistake that no one is granted equal treatment. Women make less in salaries than their male counterparts. Migrant (largely Hispanic) farm workers are underpaid and mistreated. Gays are not permitted to marry in most states. We are not equal. We continue to mistreat and to be mistreated. We are better than we were in the 1930s and the 1960s, but we are still so behind on the matter of equality. Read To Kill a Mockingbird to realize how far we have come. Read it again to realize how far we haven’t.
*Interesting facts: Harper Lee earns over $9,000 a day in royalties. TKAM continues to sell 750,000 to 1 million copies each year.