Down at the library with my kids this evening, I discovered that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird. a new book, Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, contains interviews with numerous authors and other relevant people (such as Mary Badham, who played Scout in the movie).
Harper Lee began writing the book around the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and it was published in 1960. The schools in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama, on which the fictional town of Maycomb was based, were not integrated until 1970–the same year I started kindergarten. As the book notes:
That summer [of 1960], most forms of racial segregation were no yet against the law, and civil disobedience, such as sit-ins at lunch counters, had only just begun….In Alabama, only sixty-thousand of the state’s nearly one million blacks were registered to vote. Three years later, in his 1963 inauguration speech, Governor George Wallace vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”
Thank god Wallace was factually wrong, because we know–as he eventually came to know–that he was morally wrong as well.
The realization of the milieu in which this book was published struck me especially hard, because of the debates we have been having on this blog lately. I know many people wonder why some of us insist on the analogy between racial segregation and same-sex marriage, and don’t think it’s an accurate comparison. To me the comparisons are overwhelming. In each case you have a discrete minority, different in a way that they do not control and that causes disgust, revulsion, or at least discomfort in large proportions of the majority. In each case there is a desire by the minority to achieve an equality under the law that is denied to them by the majority. In each case the majority feels themselves wholly justified. And in each case the minority wonders–often with a sense of futile desperation–if they will ever be equal.
To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me that even those who are slow to recognize the continuing existence of racism today readily affirm the evil of legal segregation in the past. Just as those who think feminism is an outrageously dangerous ideology reject the idea of denying women the vote, and generally agree that equal work should bring equal pay. Just as those who would be uncomfortable about their child marrying a person of Asian descent are equally uncomfortable acknowledging the internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II.
It’s a good time to read Harper Lee’s brilliant novel once again. And while reading it ask, “Is the meaning of this book limited to that place, that time, and that issue?” Or it is universal, quietly pleading for equality for all people, at all times?