'To Kill a Mockingbird' meets the Trayvon Martin shooting.
By: Willilam McGurn, WSJ Opinion, April 9, 2012
Recently my eighth-grader asked me whether Harper Lee would be a good subject for an assignment requiring her to write about a favorite author.
I knew my daughter had recently read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and loved it; and I knew too she remembered we'd discussed the book after I'd met Miss Lee briefly at a White House function a few years back. I also thought it a welcome exercise for a child of suburban New Jersey to imagine herself a girl coming of age in a small, Depression-era Alabama town.
One of the clichés about great literature is that it challenges what we take for granted. Heroic literature especially underscores the loneliness of those who take a courageous stand.
In this vein, Miss Lee's story about the Jim Crow South compels us to ask ourselves the tough question: Would we be among the handful standing with Atticus Finch? Or would we be among the many like Miss Gates, the schoolteacher who tells her charges Hitler is evil for persecuting Jews even as she approves of the persecution of the black men and women around her.
In a report on the president's introduction Saturday night, Britain's Guardian jumped right to the political: "Obama as Atticus Finch" begins the headline. Although the president did not link Miss Lee's story to the Trayvon Martin case, others have, and in a way that implies that the parallels are obvious.
But are they?
Where's the presumption of innocence, which in the novel was denied Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman? Perhaps it was denied Trayvon Martin, who, so far as we know, had nothing more menacing on him than a bag of Skittles when he was killed. Or perhaps it is the shooter George Zimmerman, who is now in hiding because so many want not justice but his head?
Who is the Walter Cunningham here—the hard-working white farmer who seems decent enough but nonetheless accompanies a lynch mob to the Maycomb, Ala., jail? Might it be Spike Lee, the filmmaker who in the midst of escalating racial tensions tweeted out what he thought was Mr. Zimmerman's address. As it turned out, Mr. Lee had the wrong Zimmermans, but would Atticus have thought it any better had he had the right ones?
Or what about the novel's newspaper editor, Mr. Underwood, who in a scathing editorial indicts white Maycomb by comparing Tom Robinson's death "to the senseless slaughter of songbirds." Would this be NBC, which edited a 911 tape that made the accused appear as though he was offering up a comment on race when he was in fact responding to a question from the police dispatcher?
In a statement issued before a special showing of "To Kill a Mockingbird" last Thursday at the White House, the 85-year-old Miss Lee said she was proud that "Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch lives on." The world, she says, "needs him now more than ever."
Perhaps. Yet perhaps what we need more is a novelist who might bring the same deft hand to the racial assumptions now playing out in Florida that a young Harper Lee brought to her story of 1930s Alabama.