Fifty years after its debut on Christmas Day in 1962, the film version of Harper Lee’s award-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” still holds a leading spot among timeless classic movies. More than that, it holds a place of prominence in the hearts and minds of generations of people. This movie remains one of my favorites. I have also read the book on more than one occasion and will do so again. The story and lessons learned from it will never get old.
The book, published in 1960, and the movie, tell the story of a black man accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. The story is told mostly through the eyes of two children, sister and brother, Scout and Jem, who are being raised by their widower father, Atticus Finch. Atticus is a lawyer, and takes on the unpopular job of defending the falsely-accused man. In the day and age in which the story takes place, the man’s fate is all but certain simply because he is black and his accuser is white.
It is amazing that the movie was so popular, coming out as it did during a time before the Civil Rights Act, and before the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow laws were still in place, segregating schools and public places. Yet the story shines a light on the immorality of racism, during a time when its tenets were still very firmly in place.
I’m inspired by the lead character of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a small Southern town who crusades for justice. This character, portrayed to near-perfection in the movie by Gregory Peck, has no doubt influenced many young men and women in their career choice. Through his actions, Atticus illustrates how the practice of law provides an opportunity, like practically no other profession, to stand up for the little guy against what seem to be insurmountable odds. In the eyes of the law, every man is equal. This is perfectly phrased in the book when Atticus tells the jury:
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. […] Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
When it comes to equality in our nation, we can look around today and say, “See how far we’ve come.” People of all races and genders are believed to have opportunities to succeed and hopefully they do. The President of the United States is a black man, something unimaginable in the world occupied by Scout, Jem and Atticus. It was certainly unimaginable in the world in which the book and the movie were introduced – 1960s America. Unfortunately, there are still some in this country who have difficulty accepting a black man as President. Hopefully that sort of mindset will change, and very soon.
But there’s a difference between justice in the courtroom and judgment in real life. Even in the movie, there is no perfect ending for the accused, and justice does not prevail. Despite proving his client could not have possibly committed the crime, the all-white jury convicts the man, and he is later killed while trying to escape from jail.
Sadly, we still live in a world where prejudice exists. Race, religion, orientation, even politics, as our last election shows, are catalysts for anger and a very personal kind of vitriol. It’s fitting, perhaps, that the anniversary of “To Kill a Mockingbird” falls on Christmas. It’s at this time of year, more than any other, when folks seem to make more of an effort to put aside petty differences and embrace other people. Christmas, more than any other time, is a chance to truly emulate Christ, and to put into action His greatest command, that we “love one another.”
It was this love that Atticus tried to teach his children in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” through his actions and through his gentle instruction, even in the face of injustice. His lessons included choosing to do what’s right, even when that is difficult; holding your family close, protecting and guiding them; and the importance of working to make your community better. Ultimately, his lesson was love for one’s fellow man. And maybe that’s why the story sticks with us, from generation to generation. I would encourage each of us to see the movie again and to re- read the book. If you have done neither, it’s your loss.
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