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FIRST-PERSON: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’s’ timeless message

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Someone once observed that the measure of a great book is that is has no ending. By this standard, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is indeed a classic.

The 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s one and only novel will be celebrated on July 11. The scores of readers who have experienced the Pulitzer Prize-winning work have been enlightened and challenged.

Set in an a small Alabama town the mid 1930s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” addresses the shameful reality of America’s past when racial injustice was not only tolerated, but was embraced. As such, it serves as a stark history lesson.

Lee’s novel revolves around the story of a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, and his courageous defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Though many of the town’s residents express displeasure with Finch’s decision to represent Robinson, the attorney provides a vigorous defense. During cross-examination, Finch easily discredits the testimony of Robinson’s accusers.

Even though everyone in the courtroom knows that Robinson is innocent, the all-white jury returns a guilty verdict. Finch immediately appeals the case and is confident he can at least get Robinson a new trial. However, while awaiting appeal, Robinson snaps, tries to escape from a prison farm and is shot dead.

Lee’s portrayal of racial reality prior to the civil rights movement is unvarnished and necessary. We should be ashamed at the atrocities perpetrated on minorities in our county. However, we must not forget the sins of the past lest we allow racial injustice to once again become in vogue.

Racism beats in the heart of sinful man, hence it will never be completely eradicated this side of heaven. Prejudice and bigotry are the same yesterday, today and forever. These twins are still with us in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. “To Kill a Mockingbird” reminds us of this ugly reality.

Lee’s novel, however, is more than just a history lesson. It is a tutorial in courage and morality. Through the character of Atticus Finch and his precious children, we are challenged to stand for what is right because it is right.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” doing what is right takes the form of standing against racial injustice.

While Finch accepts he will not likely change the bigoted culture in which he lives, he believes that justice is to be afforded to every person — black and white. So, he takes a stand for a man, who happens to be black, because it is the right thing to do.

In one scene from the book, Atticus is talking with his daughter, Scout. He begins, “This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience — Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

“Atticus, you must be wrong…” replies Scout.

“How’s that?”

“Well most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”

“They’re certainly entitled to think that,” Finch responds, “and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions … but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

That passage is powerful, but the line “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man” stands out. It cuts to the essence of all our choices and decisions. When all is said and done I am accountable to God for my actions — and even my inaction.

Make no mistake; Lee is not Pollyannaish in the confrontation of racism. Courage is required if one is to stand alone. Finch is insulted, threatened and his children even attacked because he chooses to vigorously defend a black man.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is … ” Finch tells his children. “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

For me, “To Kill a Mockingbird” speaks volumes about doing the right thing because it is the right thing. And taking a principled stand sometimes — many times — means standing alone.

We rarely, if ever, have control over the consequences of our choices. However, we do have full and complete control over our actions — what we do and do not do. Deep inside I think this is something we realize. More importantly, God knows it is true.

After five decades, the theme of standing on principle — even if it means standing alone — continues to resonate with readers of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” If great books have no “end,” then 50 years of influence qualifies Harper Lee’s lone novel as a classic.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs