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"To Kill a Mockingbird" at 50

We bring back Atticus, Scout and Boo Radley, as Harper Lee’s great novel of race and justice turns 50.

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird." (AP)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” turns 50 this year, and all over the country Americans are turning out to reread and honor the story of Atticus Finch, Scout, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson – and race and justice in the pre-Civil Rights era South. 

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize winner in its day. 

The movie, with Gregory Peck, was a national event. The book’s author, Harper Lee, is still alive – though she hasn’t spoken publically in years. And the book itself – the story – sells on and on, and still moves. 

This Hour, On Point: “To Kill a Mockingbird” at fifty.

Guests:

Claudia Durst Johnson, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama, where she chaired the English Department for twelve years. She’s author of “To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries.”

Rick Bragg
, journalist and professor of writing at the University of Alabama. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his work at the New York Times, and received the 2009 Harper Lee Award from the Alabama Writers’ Forum. His most recent books are ”The Most They Ever Had,” and “The Prince of Frogtown.”

Listen back to our interview with Rick Bragg for his memoir “The Prince of Frogtown.”

Catherine Jones teaches English and creative writing at Bartlett High School in Bartlett, TN. She received a 2009 Outstanding New Teacher of English Award from the Shelby- Memphis Council of Teachers of English.

More:

See what the Alabama Humanities Foundation and Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama have planned for the 50th anniversary of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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  • Michael

    I remember reading this book than watching the movie in the 7th grade in Southern California and both myself and most of the class couldn’t understand why people would do such things and the racism displayed and injustice in the book and movie towards the defendant .

    Please talk as well about the racial injustice towards blacks even today in the justice system and how many cops,lawyers, judges are let off the hook even when found to be complicit or knowingly did so. And folks much like the jury turning a blind eye to justice and hardly a jury of there peers.

  • Dee Kieft

    I introduced the book and the movie to my son when he was much younger (he’s now 22). While studying Drama, he played a small part in the school play. We now sit down once a year and watch the movie and the book is falling apart. It is timeless and it bothers us both that many of the same conditions still exist today. The book should be manditory reading for all junior high students. Sadly, many places in the South are still the same and racism is rampant. I know, as I’m a Southerner and embarrased by some politican’s behavior.

  • http://www.aledadigginsart.com Aleda

    One of the most striking things in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is how it captured the old mentality that it’s neither preferable nor possible for individuals to happily inhabit and claim multiple racial worlds and identities. Through minor characters the book portrays white citizens’ “concern” for the “poor” offspring of interracial unions, subtly revealing this ostensible sensitivity for the superficial rationalization it actually was and the callous self-perpetuating effect it had. Fortunately, racism couched in the idea that there is is such a thing as racial “purity” and that purity is naturally superior to diversity is becoming passe. It’s a gift that this era in American society was so vividly captured for posterity to reflect upon in this profound story.

  • Peter Karb

    I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility that Truman Capote actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. A wonderful book and movie.
    And Robert Duval as Boo.

  • Charles

    I’ve read the book and seen the movie several times, and they never fail to move me.

    However, I wonder how black people view this book. I raise this issue because the black characters are generally portrayed as weak, deferential and dependent on Atticus, the brave white character who comes to their aid. In the real world, of course, courageous black people took the lead in gaining their own civil rights, though with the assistance of many well-meaning Atticus Finches.

  • Derek

    This was one of three pieces of 20th century literature (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front) that I honestly enjoyed reading and discussing in high school, which was not too long ago. I hope they continue to teach the novel for decades to come. As the guest just said, it was an assignment at the time, but I was pleasantly surprised by Lee’s work. I might not have read it otherwise.

  • Deborah

    The comment that Atticus is Alabama aristocracy is insane! They are poor. When Scout asks him if they are poor, he says yes we are, not as poor as some but poor. When Scout asks what’s going to happen to his pocketwatch he says it will go to Gem. Then Scout asks what she’s going to get and Atticus says that he doesn’t have much else to give her but that she’ll get a locket (or another piece of jewelry) of her mother’s. There may have indeed been Alabama aristocracy, after a fashion, but this family is not it. Being a lawyer and even a doctor back then meant little—Atticus takes horse chestnust as payment and is happy to have them! Did you people read the same book?
    Additionally, the hero is the Mockingbird: Boo Radley. It is not Atticus Finch! And the Radleys were as much “white trash,” to use your terms, as the Ewells.

  • Peggy Kossler

    I read and enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird years ago. Today I wonder how much Atticus Finch was drawn from Clifford Durr, chairman of the FCC under Roosevelt. Durr was one of the many liberals who found it very difficult to get a job anywhere after the end of the New Deal. He was also the brother-in-law of Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, also from Alabama.
    It can be interesting also to read “outside the Magic Circle” the ‘autobiography of Virginia Durr. introduced by Studs Turkle.
    For example, one justfication for the Klan in Alabama was to prevent the mine owners from using prison labor

  • michele shoemaker

    My mother took us to see the movie when I was 10 years old, and it branded itself into my consciousness. I was blown away by a story of such magnitude and import being told from the point of view of the child. My father and grandfather were lawyers, but it was Atticus that led me to law school.

  • Ian

    TKAM is not a book about class.

    At the beginning of the book, Atticus tells Scout that they are por, just not a poor as others.

    The book is about dignity…

    “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it-whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

  • Rachel

    It has always seemed to me that the fact that Atticus IS in the legislature and DOES benefit from an oppressive system is a significant point in the book. He has to face a personal conflict in the defense of Tom Robinson, where he sees the immorality of the system he belongs to more clearly once he addresses it in an individual case. This is what makes him such a real person; he is conflicted, and has to face himself as he measures up to his own ideals. I think we see in this that Atticus will continue to grow after this chapter of his life closes.

  • http://www.frinkadvertising.com Bill Frink

    It’s a great book and a great movie. Yes it was about race and the south but to me what resonated the most was Atticus as a father, teacher and role model to his children. I watched the movie with my parents when I was in my early twenties and that’s a great family memory. When I see it now the relationship between Atticus and his children remind of my parents and what great teachers and role models they were for me and how close we were.

  • Jane

    I saw a screening of a documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, it had all kinds of people in it, tom brokaw, oprah winfrey, rick bragg and there was the voice of harper lee in it and an interview with her sister. OPRAH said she knew harper lee and had lunch with her

  • Roy Merritt

    I have read the novel several times over my life, and each time I read it I am very impressed by the narrative and Harper Lee’s talent. It is one of the few great novels which had an equally beautiful movie adapted from it. I am brought to tears each time I see Gregory Peck’s summation in the court room. Being a movie buff I can recall all the great character actors in it. Paul Fix, Brock Peters, William Windom. A few of them I recall by face only, such as the lean ragged man who was the jury foreman. The villain who spat in Gregory Peck’s face who those such as myself will recall was the chain gang guard who whipped a shadow in Woody Allen’s movie “Take The Money And Run”. He was many time a villain in westerns, etc. And who can’t help but remember Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. I have heard that since she was a neighbor and friend of Truman Capote the young boy who visited each summer during the movie and who was always dressed well was based on Capote. It has always made me sad that Ms. Lee never road another novel.

    Roy Merritt
    Wilmington, North Carolina

  • Brett

    I first read the book when I was around thirteen (which was about the time I began to write my own little short stories and the like), about eight years or so after it was published. I saw the movie sometime around the same time period.

    I learned a lot from the book and loved many of its themes: there is often a vast difference between truth and perception, particularly in our perceptions of others (folks had the wrong perceptions about Tom Robinson–the accused Black man– and “Boo” Radley–the reclusive, possibly intellectually-disabled man); courage, and that sometimes we are called upon to do the right thing albeit it is difficult and unpopular (Atticus was courageous and went against the sentiment–that erupts into anger and violence–of his neighbors in deciding to defend Tom); how a mob mentality can form among people when something happens in a community that prompts moral outrage; the “fool” as unlikely hero (“Boo” comes to Scout’s and Jem’s rescue when they are attacked, and he carries Jem home after Jem suffers a broken arm in the attack); justice does not always prevail, and that sometimes people can not transcend being victimized, and sometimes that justice can come along accidentally and irrespective of our efforts to bring it forth; loss of innocence, and how that is not only inevitable but necessary in our development…

    “Boo” Radley was an interesting character to me, as I had had my own “Boo” in my neighborhood when I was a little boy. “Boo” helped shape my own perceptions about people who are misunderstood, and I’m sure the character was one of many factors that prompted me to later work with people who have disabilities of some form.

    As far as the novel itself, as literature, it is a true southern novel, a true Southern Gothic novel, with all of the grotesque that prompts the sublime, the playing with archetypes. It is a coming-of-age novel, also, and simply written, which makes it a great “young adult” novel. I remember liking that the narrative was written from Scout’s perspective. After many years of denial, I am now comfortable in admitting that I am a southerner, and that I write from that perspective; and, my writing has come into its own in many respects as a result. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of many novels that early on gave me a sense of how to frame creative writing ideas.

    Harper Lee was quite fortunate to get the thing published, and she was lucky to write about themes at a time when those very same themes were emerging in the country’s zeitgeist; the Civil Rights issues were really beginning to simmer. She had good timing!

    I haven’t had a chance to listen to the broadcast (nor have I listened to Tina Packer’s Women of Shakespeare). I’ll have to find the time.

  • jonah

    Why is government radio using rick bragg, who was suspended by the NY Times because he committed plagarism and attempted to pass off the work of others, including interviews, as if he both did the interview and wrote the work?

    Doesn’t integrity mean anything?

  • Stephanie

    This has been my favorite book for more than 25 years. I reread it every summer and always seem to find something new and fresh with each read. Simply a beautifully written book.

  • Kelsie Jones

    More compelling than this wonderful story’s treatment of race, is what it teaches about resolving conflict, about ‘walking around in others’ shoes’ and the pointlessness of vengeance. Atticus reacts to hateful provocation not with hatred but with compassion and resolute control, qualities that well served real life champions of civil rights.

  • Carrie

    I am a 15 year old freshman in high school, and my class has just finished studying to kill a mockingbird. i found it frustrating that many of your guests said that my generation would not understand the book and would write it off as part of history. yes there will be some that do that, but that’s with every generation including the generation that the story was written about. also i was upset to hear that many people thought that kids my age would never have heard of it before, i personally have seen the play, movie and read the book twice now and it is one of my all time favorites, and this view is shared by almost all of my classmates. The book is extremely well written, the characters have a subtle complexity that make them realistic but easy to understand. granted i am not a college student let alone a high school graduate, but my generation is not stupid we are by no means free of judgmental and racist people so this book and its morals still ring true and i feel will forever stand the test of time.

  • Marilynn Loveless

    I taught, “To Kill A Mockingbird” at a posh girls’ grammar school in Melbourne, Australia a few years ago. The 9th grade girls challenged me in class one day saying, “Why didn’t the black people just fight back?” and “Why do they keep complaining about the way they are treated now that the laws have been changed and they aren’t slaves anymore?” and “Why don’t they just work hard if they want to get ahead.” I was dismayed.
    The next day I had the chair of the English Department go into the classroom before I arrived and rip into the girls — she told them that I had complained about their behavior to the headmistress of the school (a woman who inspired fear and/or respect in everyone, myself included), who would be coming to speak with them about it and that we would be bringing their parents in too.
    She left the classroom, came out and warned me, “They are really mad!” And they were. I walked into a wall of absolute hostility and fury. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep a straight face, eventually I burst out laughing. It took awhile for them to calm down, when they did we had a lively discussion about how it felt to be treated unfairly. I asked them what would happen if it kept on, and they were continually treated unfairly and we had played out the situation I set up. It was a very useful exercise and the book sparked a wonderful and thoughtful exploration of racism inspired by this wonderful book.

  • Karen Keltz

    I first saw this movie when I was about 9 years old. It was abvious that Tom could not have, but her father did, abuse Mae Ella. It was my eureka! moment in understanding bigotry. I couldn’t wait to read the novel. I credit this historical fiction for my liberalism, tolerance, and compassion, which led me to a life of trying to understand people different from myself. Seeing the humanity of Boo led to a summer job working with the mentally challanged, and has translated to a life in healthcare. Thank you Harper Lee.

  • Ann Carmola

    I was surprised that one of your guests mentioned that the book was not often chosen to read because it was the only book written by Harper Lee. The members of my book club had all read the book at one time or another, so we chose to read Mockingbird the biography of Harper Lee. Once we finished that we moved to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and made a point of watching the movie. We also took the time to view the two most recent movies about Capote. All of these together, made for wonderful discussions about all three books, the relationship of Capote and Lee, and should Harper Lee have been listed as a co-author on In Cold Blood.
    I would also like to make your listeners aware of a recent article in the New York Times 5/6/10 regarding Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1945. His story is similar to that of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. A book by Alex Heard: The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South has been recently published.

    Ann

  • http://piningforthewest.co.uk Katrina

    I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 12 years old, then again for school at the age of 14. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have reread it over nearly 40 years. My boys read it when they were at school. We live in Scotland, and I am amazed that the book isn’t taught in Alabama. Maybe it’s just that people don’t cherish their local heroes. Thanks for the very interesting show.

  • John Spicer

    Thank you for a wonderfully interesting show. I teach high school social studies in North Carolina and have this year developed a new course on “Southern Cultures.” The primary document used in this class of juniors and seniors is the novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” From this work, I teach race, history, religion, social structure, gender, food, politics, and more. My students love this book and are always so very much engaged in discussions surrounding the text! This has become one of the most popular courses in the school.

    Thank you for celebrating the anniversary of this monumental work.

  • http://wbur Becky Dill

    I am coming into this late, but feel compelled to share some of a brief experience I had last year with a group of 8th graders in my community who were reading this novel; in spite of a great deal of effort on the part of their excellent teachers to “backfill” historical context for the kids, entering such a foreign world and finding relevance was a real challenge for them. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the kids say, “I don’t get it.” Many even thought that Scout herself was an African American child. How fundamentally misunderstood is that?
    However, I discovered a point of entry for some students that I hadn’t thought about until I re-read it with these students: Harper Lee’s title gives a clue. She frequently makes skillful, indirect reference to the inherent dignity and worth of all living things. Dill and Scout and Jem illustrate this when they discuss how to get a turtle to poke its head out of a shell, or Jem chastises Scout for messing with a roly-poly; then there is even the poor rabid dog, which I know was meant to help give Atticus more than a bookish sort of integrity and courage, but stirred compassion in me and many of the students reading that scene.
    Boo, Tom Robinson, Mayella, even Ms Dubose– all speak to a need to climb into a person’s shoes, as Atticus once explains to Scout, before condemning him or dismissing the worth of his or her existence.
    The kids who had trouble accessing the racism piece (these white kids who are used to such subtle, integral racism, they don’t believe it still exists, anymore)were finally able to get the dignity piece through exploring the use of animals and misunderstood folks.

  • Brandy

    I have been teaching this novel and its film adaptation for nearly thirty years, and I always gain some new insight with each reading and viewing. For most of my students, it is the first serious novel they have ever read (high school students). My African-American students appreciate the part the film and novel played during the Civil Rights movement and the passage of many legislative acts.
    I must disagree with the “class” issue offered by your commentator! Of course, Mayella is a victim of her poverty, but her father, Bob Ewell, is the symbol of EVIL, and he is not a victim. He broke Jem’s arm, and he is an attempted child murderer–the lowest of low in any society. Those adults who hurt children are NOT victims no matter what class level they are from.

  • Clopha Deshotel

    Scout was able to safely reach adulthood due to the support system around her; Calpurnia, Maudie, and Alexandra, along with her dad. Perhaps this could get some new attention as the 50th anniversary continues through the summer and into the new academic year.

  • Kate

    I read this book when I was thirteen – I read it and reread it and reread it for an entire summer. This book changed my life and my understanding of the world. It awakened in me an understanding of people’s capacity for evil – and their capacity for good.

    6 months ago, I gave the book to my thirteen year old son to read. He gave an oral book report on it and told the class that it made him feel sick to read it – all that he had studied about the legacy of racial injustice had not prepared him for what it really meant.

    This book is a life-changer and ought to be required reading; it IS the great American novel of the 20th century.

  • Bill Keller

    Someone above made the comment that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is not taught in Alabama. I live in Alabama, and the book is cherished here. It’s a source of great pride. Miss Lee has received about any honor here an in-state honor can receive. It is widely taught in schools.

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