Harper Lee died today. She would have been surprised, I think, to know what a profound impact her book, To Kill A Mockingbird, in its film form, had on me. It gave me what I had too little of in my childhood — hope.
As a child growing up in demonically racist Albany, Georgia in the 1960s, reared by white Civil Rights activist parents who were outspokenly opposed to the South’s racism and segregation, the film To Kill A Mockingbird provided me hope. By hope I mean, as do many liberation theologians, the by-product of a context in which people find reason to believe that the future can be substantially better than the soul crushing present. I was introduced to that concept by Brazil’s Leonard Boff in his book, A Path To Hope: Fragments From A Theologian’s Journey.
For me, that context was To Kill A Mockingbird which I saw long before I read the novel.
Released on Christmas Day, 1962, I recall vividly how, when the film came to our segregated theater, my parents and I got dressed up to go see it. I cannot recall another movie we ever went to see as a family. But, they made sure that I got to see this one. On the screen, in the film subtly directed by Robert Mulligan, I discovered there were other people like us — white people who hated segregation and racism. The story centered on a white lawyer, much like my father, who publicly stood up to segregationists and their vicious habits.
It was not that the film gave me hope that segregation would one day end – in that day and time for me that seemed beyond reach. It was less than a year later when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I recall being in my 7th grade math class when we got word over the loudspeaker that he had been shot. Only a few moments later, we were told the president had died. The children in my classroom erupted in cheers – “the nigger lover is dead!” – foot stomping, and laughter. Horrified not only by the death of the president, I was horrified by my classmates’ response. I was overwhelmed with the sense that if they knew who I was – a “nigger lover” – they would wish me dead, too.
To the contrary, to my child’s mind, the idea that segregation and the racism which upheld it ever would end was too much to hope for in 1962. It and the people who loved it were intractable, it seemed to me then.
The hope the film gave me was the knowledge that there were other people in the world like me and my family. I might go through the rest of my school years hiding, but one day I could find people like the Finches who would like me the way I was. People who would see the cruelty and ugliness of our culture’s “peculiar institution” the way my family did and wish it dead and gone the way we did.
I will always keep a tender place in my heart for Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, and Maycomb, Alabama. Godspeed, Miss Lee, and thank you.