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Daniels: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ lessons remain vital today

November 11, 2017

Daniels
When asked about the book that has had the most profound impact on my life, I invariably respond that it is Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I first read the book in eighth grade. For me, eighth grade happened to coincide with the 1960s, a critical period in our nation’s history, memorable for the struggle for integration and equal rights for African-Americans. The nightly news included footage of snarling police dogs and police in riot gear, beating marchers with nightsticks and spraying them with water cannons.

Reading Lee’s book about racial hatred and discrimination in the 1930s South brought a realization of why those people were marching in the first place. The story, told by a child learning about the evil perpetrated by adults who view life through a prism of ignorance and hate, mesmerized me.

Around the time I read it, the iconic movie based on the book was released. I have a distinct memory of watching the movie with a youth group at a local church—I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience must have been white. We left in stunned silence, realizing perhaps for the first time the depth of man’s inhumanity to man and its impact on society. That book, and the accompanying movie, taught so many lessons about good and evil, right and wrong, duty and honor, prejudice, and human dignity. It stays with me to this day.

While many find Scout and Jem’s long walk home through the woods the most terrifying scene in the movie, to me it was the courtroom scene. My young logical brain could see clearly that Tom Robinson could not possibly have committed the crime of which he was accused—sexually assaulting a white woman—and that the real villain who had beaten Mayella Ewell was her ignorant, bigoted father. I thrilled at Atticus Finch’s summation to the jury, concluding with, “In the name of God—do your duty.” I wept as Rev. Sykes commanded young Scout to stand in respect after the trial as her father passed by the “colored balcony” where blacks were required to sit.

We all know the story: how Tom Robinson was convicted by an all-white jury of a crime he clearly did not commit; how he was killed while escaping; how his lawyer’s children were targeted by the source of the evil; and how the shunned, maligned and misunderstood Boo Radley saved them from death.

There are so many lessons in that book for young minds, about questioning their own prejudices and standing up for what is right and just, in the face of harsh criticism and even hatred. Now, more than ever, society’s children need to be reading it.

And yet, a school district in Mississippi has just removed the book from its eighth-grade required-reading list, because the book “makes some people uncomfortable.”

Excuse me??

I believe that the whole point of the book is to “make people uncomfortable” as we confront a past that helps to explain a great deal about our present. Are not the concerns of those in the Black Lives Matter movement ultimately rooted in the experiences of blacks over many decades of mistreatment at the hands of whites?

Even as we continue to improve as a society, it’s clear that vestiges of Bob Ewell remain. I believe it is only through confronting, recognizing and rejecting such evil that we can hope to purge ourselves of it once and for all and become the society we hold ourselves out to be.•

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Daniels, managing partner of Krieg DeVault LLP, is a former U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorney general, and president of the Sagamore Institute. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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