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50 Years On, 'Mockingbird' Still Sings America's Song

Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his 1962 performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had the kind of success that most writers only dream about: Shortly after her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published on July 11, 1960, it hit the best-seller lists. In 1961, it won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1962, it was made into an Academy Award-winning film. It has never gone out of print.

Lee stepped out of the limelight and stopped doing interviews years ago -- and she never wrote another book. Still, her influence has far outlasted most writers of her generation.

For the high-schoolers reading To Kill a Mockingbird today, America is a very different place than it was when Lee wrote her novel 50 years ago. Lee's story of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus -- a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape -- came out just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation.

Today, in a 10th grade English class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., students of many different races and ethnicities are studying the book together. Their teacher, Laurel Taylor, says that the story still resonates -- and with students of all backgrounds.

"Trying to find your identity and realizing that your society doesn't always tell you the right thing" is a particularly profound message for teens, Taylor says. "Sometimes you have to go against what everyone else says to do the right thing. All that kind of resonates no matter where you come from."

Doing The Right Thing

When To Kill a Mockingbird was topping best-seller lists in 1960, protesters were organizing sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters across the South. The civil rights movement was well under way.

Joanne Gabbin, a professor of English at James Madison University in Virginia, grew up in the 1950s and '60s. She was just a child when she saw a photograph of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American teen who was viciously murdered after he reportedly whistled at a white woman.

"I was traumatized as a child by the whole thought of racism," Gabbin says. "And the fact that children weren't safe in this country ... [simply] because of the color of their skin."

Gabbin read To Kill a Mockingbird when she was 17, and says that for her, it was a pivotal book. In Tom Robinson, the African-American man unjustly accused of rape, she saw not a victim, but a hero. He reminded her of her father and grandfather -- African-American men who put up with untold humiliation in order to take care of their families. Atticus Finch gave her hope that there really were white people who would do the right thing -- and she believes the book may have helped to make that a reality.

"People who were determined to keep black people down ... were not going to be reading this book in the first place and were not going to be influenced," Gabbin says. "But I think those people who were moderate, who were more liberal, when they got to read To Kill a Mockingbird, they probably wanted to identify with the courageous character of Atticus Finch."

A New Way To Think About Race

When the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962, the character of Atticus became forever entwined with the actor who portrayed him, Gregory Peck. But whether you first encountered him on page or on screen, Atticus was unforgettable -- a modest man of great integrity, he managed to impart his wisdom without being too preachy.

"There's been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man," he tells his daughter, Scout, in the 1962 film adaptation. "If I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again."

The relationship between Atticus and his 6-year-old daughter is the emotional heart of the book. For many readers -- and for many female readers in particular -- feisty, fearless Scout is the most memorable character.

"The story of Scout's initiation and maturing is the story of finding out who you are in the world," says author Mary McDonagh Murphy. "And at the same time, the novel is about finding out who we are as a country."

Murphy's new book, Scout, Atticus & Boo, is based on interviews about To Kill a Mockingbird with well-known writers, journalists, historians and artists. Murphy says the novel, narrated from a child's point of view, gave white people, especially in the South, a nonthreatening way to think about race differently.

"The book is structured with all these indelible characters," Murphy says. "The ending is not this triumphant good over evil ... I mean there's real moral ambiguity to what happened. It all combined to allow them to question the moral order of things."

The questions raised by the book were part of a conversation that echoed around the country. It's a conversation that is still going on, and the book endures because people can relate to it in so many different ways.

"It's about race, it's about prejudice, it's about childhood, it's about parenting, it's about love, it's about loneliness -- there's something for everyone," Murphy says.

To Kill a Mockingbird didn't change everyone's mind, but it did open some. And it made an impression on many young people who, like Scout, were trying to get a grip on right and wrong in a world that is not always fair.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Harper Lee had the kind of success most writers can only dream about. Shortly after her novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," came out in the summer of 1960, it hit the best-seller lists. Then it won a Pulitzer Prize, and then was made into an Oscar-winning movie. Her novel has never gone out of print.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

But in a move that's unheard of in this age of celebrity writers, Lee stepped out of the limelight and stopped doing interviews years ago. She has never written another book. Still, her influence has endured as we mark the 50th anniversary of its publication. NPR's Lynn Neary examines why this novel has had such a lasting effect on our culture.

LYNN NEARY: On the last day of school at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, 10th graders straggle into English class for their final exam. Teacher Laurel Taylor stands at the door, reminding this plugged-in generation that they won't be taking the test on a computer.

Ms. LAUREL TAYLOR (Teacher): Do you have a pen or pencil with you? You need to get one. Go find your pen.

NEARY: The world these kids were born into is so different from the way things were 50 years ago, when "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published. Harper Lee's story of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus, who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape, came out just as the fight to desegregate schools was getting started. Today, kids of all races sit in Taylor's classroom, and she says many come from all over the world.

Ms. TAYLOR: And yet they all still find something in that book that kind of resonates. I think that sense of - kind of trying to find your identity and realizing that your society doesn't always tell you the right thing and that sometimes, you have to go against what everyone else says, to do the right thing. All that kind of resonates, no matter where you come from.

NEARY: Taylor first read "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a student teacher, and her passion for it is still fresh. She nudges her students to talk about the book, asking them what they learned from it. Chachi Wessin Saget(ph) shyly offers this.

Ms. CHACHI WESSIN SAGET (Student): I learned I shouldn't just say you don't like a certain person based on their culture or skin color or race.

NEARY: Was there any one character that you kind of liked best?

Ms. SAGET: Scout.

NEARY: Why?

Ms. SAGET: She spoke her mind and like, she wasn't afraid of anything.

NEARY: Mohammed Seesay(ph) says his favorite character is Atticus.

Mr. MOHMAMMED SEESAY (Student): He's the only character in the book who is like, willing to do the right thing, even though he will get a bad name for it, 'cause a lot of characters in the book like, wouldn't even dare do that.

NEARY: When asked whether this book - or any other book, for that matter -could change a person's mind, Mohammed says no.

Mr. SEESAY: Like, there's still some people right now in this world like, who still hate black people or hate another race, and I don't think their opinion is going to change just 'cause of a book.

NEARY: But when "To Kill a Mockingbird" came out, the world was changing.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Everybody loves freedom. Let me tell you 'bout freedom.

NEARY: The Civil Rights Movement was under way and in 1960, the same year the book was topping best-seller lists, black protesters tried to sit down at whites-only lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina. The racism they were battling was so deeply ingrained, it was simply a way of life.

Unidentified Man: They come in, and they sit down, and we're not used to them sitting down beside us because I wasn't raised with them. I never have lived with them, and I'm not going to start now.

NEARY: Joanne Gabbin, now a professor of English at James Madison University in Virginia, grew up in the '50s and '60s. She was just a child when she saw a photograph of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American who was viciously murdered after he supposedly whistled at a white woman.

Professor JOANNE GABBIN (English, James Madison University): I was traumatized as a child by the whole thought of racism, and the fact that children weren't safe in this country. And they weren't safe not because they were bad children. They were not safe because of the color of their skin. So for me, this was a pivotal book.

NEARY: Gabbin read the book at the age of 17. In Tom Robinson, the black man unjustly accused of rape, she saw not a victim, but a hero. He reminded her of her father and grandfather - black men who put up with untold humiliation in order to take care of their families. Atticus Finch gave her hope that there really were white people who would do the right thing, and she believes the book may have helped to make that happen.

Ms. GABBIN: I think those people who were determined to keep black people down -and other people of color down - in this country, were not going to be reading this book in the first place, and were not going to be influenced. But I think those people who were moderate, who were more liberal, when they got to read "To Kill a Mockingbird," they probably wanted to identify with the courageous character of Atticus Finch.

NEARY: When the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" came out, Atticus became permanently entwined with the actor who portrayed him: Gregory Peck. But whether you first encountered him on page or on screen, Atticus was unforgettable. A modest man of great integrity, he managed to impart his wisdom without being too preachy.

(Soundbite of movie, "To Kill a Mockingbird")

Mr. GREGORY PECK (Actor): (As Atticus): There's been some high talk around town, to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man.

Ms. MARY BADHAM (Actress): (As Scout) If you shouldn't be defending him, then why are you doing it?

Mr. PECK: (As Atticus) For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town.

NEARY: The relationship between Atticus and his 6-year-old daughter, Scout, is the emotional heart of the book. And for many girls and women, feisty, fearless Scout is the most memorable character. One such woman is Mary McDonagh Murphy.

Ms. MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY (Author): The story of Scout's initiation and maturing is the story of finding out who you are in the world. And at the same time, the novel is about who we are as a country.

NEARY: Murphy's new book, "Scout, Atticus and Boo," is based on interviews about "To Kill a Mockingbird" with well-known writers, journalists, historians and artists. Murphy says the novel, told from a child's point of view, gave white people, especially in the South, a nonthreatening way to think about race differently.

Ms. MURPHY: I think the way the book is structured with all these indelible characters, that the ending is not this kind of triumphant good over evil; Tom Robinson is acquitted. I mean, there's real moral ambiguity to what happens. It all combined to allow them to really question the moral order of things.

NEARY: The questions raised by the book were part of a conversation that echoed around the country. It's a conversation that's still going on. And the book endures, says Mary McDonagh Murphy, because people can relate to it in so many different ways.

Ms. MURPHY: It's about race. It's about prejudice. It's about childhood. It's about parenting. It's about love. It's about loneliness. I mean, there's something for everyone, in its way. And it's a transforming experience.

NEARY: "To Kill a Mockingbird" didn't change everyone's mind, but it did open some, and it did make an impression on many young people who, like Scout, were trying to get a grip on right and wrong in a world that's not always fair.

Lynne Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: So here's a question: What did "To Kill a Mockingbird" mean to you? You can join the conversation at our website: npr.org. There, you can also read an excerpt from the book, and watch scenes from the 1962 film. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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