'To Kill a Mockingbird': In a World That Needs Him Now, Atticus Finch Continues to Inspire

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The fiftieth anniversary of the memorable film, To Kill a Mockingbird, has been celebrated throughout the country recently.

President Obama hosted a screening at the White House. The guest list for the screening included students from Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Va., as well as Mary Badham Wilt, who played Scout Finch in the film, and Veronique Peck, the widow of actor Gregory Peck, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of attorney Atticus Finch.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
- spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including one for Horton Foote for his adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a family and a town in the U.S. South dealing with issues of justice and racial equality when Atticus Finch defends a black man wrongly accused of rape.

"I'm deeply honored that President Obama will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird by introducing it to a national audience," Lee said in a statement issued by AFI, USA Network and Universal Pictures. "I believe it remains the best translation of a book to film ever made, and I'm proud to know that Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch lives on -- in a world that needs him now more than ever."

Obama addressing attendees at screeningThe President introduced the film at the White House Family Theater screening, calling Lee's novel a "timeless American classic and one of his favorite books," the White House said.

Read the full articles, "Mary Badham, who portrayed Scout in the film "To Kill a Mockingbird," at post-gazette.com. and "'Mockingbird' screened at White House" at UPI.com.

"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
- spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Across the country in Beverly Hills, Calif., The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences showcased a new digital restoration of To Kill a Mockingbird in celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary. The evening was introduced by talk show host Tavis Smiley and an onstage discussion with Oscar®-nominated actress Mary Badham who played Scout.

The film was  produced by Alan J. Pakula and directed by Robert Mulligan.  For his iconic portrayal of Atticus Finch, Peck earned his fifth Best Actor nomination and only Oscar.

"Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."
- spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Peck described  To Kill a Mockingbird as the picture ''closest to my heart and the high point of my career. It was easy for me to do. It was just like putting on a comfortable, well-worn suit of clothes.

''I identified with everything that happened in that story, with the small-town life which reminded me of the California town where I grew up, I think that Atticus Finch was a popular man. For a long time I was a very busy fellow on the freeways, waving back to well-wishers at red lights, who would grin and yell, 'Hi, Atticus,'' and I would grin right back.''

Screenshot: Robert Duvall as Boo radley in To Kill a MockingbirdCo-star Robert Duvall made his film debut as the mysterious Boo Radley, while a 10-year-old Badham also made her first screen appearance as Atticus’s daughter Scout. The film unfolds as a coming-of-age story, as Scout learns about injustice, human frailties and the definition of heroism. Brock Peters played Tom Robinson.

At the Beverly Hills screening, Smiley raised a controversial topic when he referenced the Trayvon Martin case. “What are the chances that this day in Florida George Zimmerman would be arrested? What are the chances that we sit in Beverly Hills on this day to see To Kill A Mockingbird, and these kinds of tensions still exist in our country?” he said during his introductory remarks.

After the film was screened, several activists participated in the discussion.   They included civil rights attorney Connie Rice and Terrence Roberts, who in 1957 at the age of 15 was one of nine students who tried to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Original movie poster for To Kill a MockingbirdSmiley said, “The film entertains, empowers, elevates and inspires discourse in this country” while pointing out the virtues of its core humanity and plea for racial tolerance — and that Atticus Finch was named the greatest movie hero of all time by the American Film Institute. “I saw this movie more times than I can count growing up as a member of the only African-American family for miles around,” he said.

Terrence Roberts said, “Its contemporary themes are so current it’s as if it was made yesterday”. Badham, who was the youngest actor ever to be nominated for an Oscar at the time recalled that her home town of Birmingham, Alabama, was just too risky a place to shoot the film. It was actually all shot on the back lot of Universal Studios.

"When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don't make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles 'em."
- spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Despite her editors' warnings that the book might not sell well, it quickly became a sensation, bringing acclaim to author Harper Lee not only in literary circles, but also in her hometown of Monroeville and throughout Alabama. The book went through numerous subsequent printings and became widely available through its inclusion in the Book of the Month Club and editions released by Reader's Digest Condensed Books.

The New Yorker declared it "skilled, unpretentious, and totally ingenious," and The Atlantic Monthly's reviewer rated it as "pleasant, undemanding reading," but found the narrative voice—"a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult"—to be implausible. Time magazine's 1960 review of the book states that it "teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life" and calls Scout Finch "the most appealing child since Carson McCullers' Frankie got left behind at the wedding." The Chicago Sunday Tribune noted the even-handed approach to the narration of the novel's events, writing: "This is in no way a sociological novel. It underlines no cause... To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel of strong contemporary national significance."

"Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open."
- spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Book cover: To Kill a MockingbirdAfter being published, To Kill a Mockingbird was translated into ten languages. In the years since, it has sold over 30 million copies and been translated into over 40 languages. To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print in hardcover or paperback and has become part of the standard literature curriculum. A 2008 survey of secondary books read by students between grades 9–12 in the U.S. indicates the novel is the most widely read book in these grades. A 1991 survey by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated behind only the Bible in books that are "most often cited as making a difference."

One of the most significant impacts To Kill a Mockingbird has had is Atticus Finch's model of integrity for the legal profession. As scholar Alice Petry explains, "Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person." Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center cites Atticus Finch as the reason he became a lawyer.

The American Library Association reported that To Kill a Mockingbird was number 21 of the 100 most frequently challenged books of 2000–2009.

One of the first incidents of the book being challenged was in Hanover, Virginia, in 1966: a parent protested that the use of rape as a plot device was immoral. Johnson cites examples of letters to local newspapers, which ranged from amusement to fury; those letters expressing the most outrage, however, complained about Mayella Ewell's attraction to Tom Robinson over the depictions of rape. Upon learning the school administrators were holding hearings to decide the book's appropriateness for the classroom, Harper Lee sent $10 to The Richmond News Leader suggesting it to be used toward the enrollment of "the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice". The National Education Association in 1968 placed the novel second on a list of books receiving the most complaints from private organizations.

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew."
- spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Civil Rights leader Andrew Young says that part of the book's effectiveness is that it "inspires hope in the midst of chaos and confusion" and by using racial epithets portrays the reality of the times in which it was set. Young views the novel as "an act of humanity" in showing the possibility of people rising above their prejudices.

Diane McWhorter, Pultizer Prize-winning historian of the Birmingham civil rights campaign, asserts that To Kill a Mockingbird condemns racism instead of racists, and states that every child in the South has moments of racial cognitive dissonance when they are faced with the harsh reality of inequality. This feeling causes them to question the beliefs with which they have been raised, which for many children is what the novel does. McWhorter writes of Lee, "...for a white person from the South to write a book like this in the late 1950s is really unusual—by its very existence an act of protest, and the way Lee approaches the story with "honesty and integrity".

During the years immediately following the novel's publication, Harper Lee enjoyed the attention its popularity garnered her, granting interviews, visiting schools, and attending events honoring the book. In 1961, when To Kill a Mockingbird was in its 41st week on the best-seller list, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, stunning Lee.

It also won the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in the same year, and the Paperback of the Year award from Bestsellers magazine in 1962. Starting in 1964, Lee began to turn down interviews, complaining that the questions were monotonous, and grew concerned that attention she received bordered on the kind of publicity celebrities sought. She has declined ever since to talk with reporters about the book. She has also steadfastly refused to provide an introduction, writing in 1995: "Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity. The only good thing about introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose to come. ’Mockingbird’ still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble."

In 2001, Lee was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor. In the same year, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley initiated a reading program throughout the city's libraries, and chose his favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as the first title of the One City, One Book program. Lee declared that "there is no greater honor the novel could receive."  By 2004, the novel had been chosen by 25 communities for variations of the citywide reading program, more than any other novel. David Kipen of the National Endowment of the Arts, who supervised The Big Read, states "...people just seem to connect with it. It dredges up things in their own lives, their interactions across racial lines, legal encounters, and childhood. It's just this skeleton key to so many different parts of people's lives, and they cherish it."

Harper Lee receiving medal from President George W. BushIn 2006, Lee was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame. During the ceremony, the students and audience gave Lee a standing ovation, and the entire graduating class held up copies of To Kill a Mockingbird to honor her. Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 5, 2007 by President George W. Bush. In his remarks, Bush stated, "One reason To Kill a Mockingbird succeeded is the wise and kind heart of the author, which comes through on every page... To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It's been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever."

“It's such an amazing educational tool," Ms. Badham says. "This film touches people, and I've seen where the book and the film both have brought people together and showed them what a family can do. ... It's just wonderful."

Visit your local library to obtain these resources:

 
To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries
Claudia Johnson, (1994).

 

Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents
Claudia Johnson, (1994).

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee, (1960) (50th anniversary edition: 2010).

Racism in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
Candice Mancini, editor, (2008).

Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird
Mary M.Murphy, editor, (2010).

Critical Insights: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
 Don Noble, editor, (2010).

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
Charles Shields, (2006).

 

 

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