Harper Lee contributed to my moral compass like east defines the sunrise. I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird” and saw the movie the year it came out–1963. Up until then, my mother had taken us to Disney movies. The black and white story rolled across the screen, so much different from the bright chirping of the Disney movies that were our regular fare. I give my mother credit for taking us.
I fell in love with Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch. I wanted him for a father, a friend. I wanted to BE him. I didn’t know how a person could learn to have that true sense of right, but it suddenly explained everything in life to me. Cross color barriers; cross class barriers; cross the street and take on the rabid dog. Just do it.
After the movie, I sought out the book. I found an even more complex story–the neighbor addicted to painkillers and the heightened racism. Boo Radley reminded me of the neighbor up my own road–an old lady who frightened me. As I read, Atticus came to life even more. The adventurers, Scout and Gem and Dill were about my age. When Scout was caught up in her chicken-wire costume, her fear was my fear. And the lessons crystallized for me.
My hometown was a classic small northern Connecticut village with a steepled white church on Main Street, a colonnaded Inn and old colonials that gave way to pocket-sized farms. We had no black neighbors. Migrant workers arrived each summer to pick tobacco and potatoes, the main crops. They lived in shed dorms along the edges of the farms where they worked. By September they were gone, never seen by most of us unless we took a summer job picking tobacco. Even then, the town kids were segregated from the workers. The homogeneity went to religion as well. Catholics had a church on the mill side of town. There was only one Jewish family and if they worshiped, it was in another town.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” opened my eyes in a way that would not have been possible at that time, in that place I called home. And as I’m waiting for the second inauguration ceremonies for Barack Obama, on the day we are celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ve been thinking about Harper Lee’s brave book and the movie that released 50 years ago.