Harper Lee’s “Mockingbird”: Turning the Pages on People’s Perspectives


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Harper Lee’s “Mockingbird”:

Turning the Pages on People’s Perspectives


 "A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 18 ounces of a new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird."

Washington Post, 1960

(Fade to Black)

Here it was . . . . a turning point. . . . Amongst bus boycotts, Supreme Court decisions, drugstore sit-ins, and revolutionary leaders holding non-violent protests, campus activism, Freedom Rides, Freedom Schools and “I Have a Dream.”


At a time when the world’s views were much less advanced through technology than they are today, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, granted millions of Americans a more clear understanding of the segregated South and Jim Crow Justice. The book gave hope that true justice would prevail and still speaks of fundamental truths to this day. It has inspired people to transform knowledge about an unjust situation into action and has profoundly changed the character of our country for the better. 



When Cotton was King, and the intensive labor crop required workers, slavery was accepted as a necessity of life. Slave buying and selling was also big business, and many slaves on plantations were physically, emotionally or sexually abused. Even after the 14th Amendment freed the slaves, African Americans still experienced discrimination.

Starting in the 1880’s, Jim Crow Laws enforced segregation in the majority of America.  These laws forbade intermarriage and ordered business owners and public institutions to keep their black and white clientele separated.

Blacks thought they might be making some gains when they returned from World War I – victorious – and thought, if they continued to work hard, they might be accepted as equals. Unfortunately, they found more racism and violence than ever, including the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Segway—music for Lee’s background

Harper Lee grew up in the segregated Southern town of Monroeville, Alabama, in the 1930s. She was a tomboy, an avid reader, and best friends with neighbor Truman Capote. Lee heard and saw racial inequality throughout her childhood. Her father was a lawyer that once defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. He lost his case and in the end both clients were hanged.

While growing up, she also was affected by the Scottsboro Trials. This was a real life event in 1931 where 9 black men were being tried for allegedly raping 2 white women, which was punishable by death. Although it was clearly proven that the men were innocent, the court still found them guilty.


Mounting tension over Civil Rights activism filled newspaper headlines while Harper Lee wrote her book. Newspapers ran articles about the civil rights movement including Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Emmett Till case, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Desegregating Little Rock, and the Southern Sit-Ins.

(Turning Point)

Harper Lee moved to New York City in 1949 and worked as a reservation clerk, but she did not forget her small town Southern roots. While in New York, her childhood friend Truman Compote introduced her to Broadway composer Michael Brown. Lee and the Brown family became instant friends. On Christmas 1956 the Brown family gave Lee a gift that would forever change her life and the course of American literature. She was given enough money to take a year off from her job in order to write, she took the opportunity and the result was “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Harper Lee spoke a truth people were not ready to acknowledge, and on July 11, 1960 “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published.

At first only 5,000 copies of the book were published. Publishers thought, “Who is going to buy 5,000 copies of that book”, but To Kill a Mockingbird quickly hit the best-seller lists. In 1961, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

The story is told through the eyes of a young girl named Scout. Scout’s father Atticus was a lawyer who was given the task of defending a black man for raping a white woman. Throughout the story, the reader learned that the man was indisputably innocent of the rape, but the jury still found him guilty.

The book’s storyline mirrored newspaper articles (show photo of Scottsboro Trials and Emmitt Till), but it did more than that. It made the storylines relatable. For some people this book exposed them to the hatred of the South and it allowed them to relate to the characters as if they were actually experiencing this hatred. As writer Rick Bragg puts it:

“Many people see To Kill a Mockingbird as a civil rights novel, but it transcends that issue. It is a novel about right and wrong, about kindness and meanness. As a child in rural Alabama in the 1960s, I had seen such stories burn past me, somehow unreal and distant, as buses were overturned, as civil rights workers were beaten or shot from speeding cars. I did not truly feel those hatreds, or understand them, until I read that book.”

In 1960, television was a fairly new communication technology, and 25% of American homes still did not have television sets. Because of this, many people had no way of fully witnessing the injustices Lee saw growing up. Those in the United State not raised in the region had trouble understanding the daily lifestyles of the segregated south. Lee’s book had a major impact on society since it allowed Americans to relate to and understand the problems people faced in this region.

Mrs. Renee Interview

By 1962, the book was made into a movie. This allowed the concepts in the book to reach more people. The movie was nominated for 8 academy awards and won three academy awards total. The Movie is still considered one of the best screen adaptations of all times. Gregory Peck won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. He was said to believe the role "brought him closest to being the kind of man he aspired to be." The book and movie made people rethink their views of right and wrong. It made the nation aspire to do more than what they were doing.


Mary McDonagh Murphy, an independent filmmaker and producer of the documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, believes that the book also had an impact on the civil rights movement. Civil Rights gained steam shortly after the book’s publication and picked up even more after the movie version of the book was released in 1962.

Murphy explained that, “Just as an earlier ‘successful model’, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, gave abolitionists fuel in the Civil War, many people have said that To Kill a Mockingbird provided important ammunition in the civil rights movement.”
The fact that the book “was written by a young white woman from the Deep South,” Murphy continued, did a lot “in ways that no treatise, no newspaper editorial, no politician could do.”

The reason, she said, was that To Kill a Mockingbird “was art, it was popular, it was told from the point of view of a child, and it allowed white Southerners and Northerners and everyone else to question the system and the way it was.”—See if you can find a clip of her saying this (I think from Virginia Film Festival?)

(Short-Term Consequences)

Not long after Lee’s book and the movie were seen and discussed, important decisions started taking place regarding racial discrimination in America. –Should this be said or viewed with song about change? IDK What do you think

May 1961: Over the spring and summer, student volunteers began taking bus trips through the South to test out new laws that prohibit segregation in interstate travel facilities, which included bus and railway stations. Several of the groups of "freedom riders," as they were called, were attacked by angry mobs along the way. The program involved more than 1,000 volunteers, black and white.

August 28, 1963: About 200,000 people joined the march as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Short Clip or “I have a dream” in background

July 2, 1964: President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The law also provided the federal government with the powers to enforce desegregation.
August 10, 1965: Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for Southern blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other such requirements that were used to restrict black voting were made illegal.

Sept. 24, 1965: President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which enforced affirmative action for the first time. It required government contractors to "take affirmative action" toward prospective minority employees, in all aspects of hiring and employment.

(Long-term Consequences)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was published over 50 years ago now, and it is still changing the hearts of the people that read it. Currently the book has sold over 30 million copies and has been translated into over 40 different languages. It has never gone out of print.

The movie adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” in 1995.

The American Film Institute placed “To Kill a Mockingbird” 34th on its list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. Atticus Finch was named the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.

Critic Steven Lubet said in his essay titles "Reconstructing Atticus Finch" that, “No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession than the hero of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.” The character Atticus Finch has caused generations of children dream of becoming lawyers —not just average lawyers, but lawyers of unimpeachable integrity with an unrelenting focus on achieving true justice. Civil rights lawyer Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center says Atticus Finch is the reason he became a lawyer. A law professor at the University of Notre Dame stated that the most influential textbook he taught from was “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

Harper Lee has received honorary degrees from Springhill College in Mobile, AL and Notre Dame. In 2007, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for writing “The story of an old order, and the glimmers of humanity that would one day overtake it,” President Bush continues, “her beautiful book, with its grateful prose and memorable characters, became one of the biggest-selling novels of the 20th century…

To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It's been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever.”


In conclusion, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, related to audiences in a new way. The book presented a fiction to the nation that became more real than the facts in the daily newspapers of the time. To Kill a Mockingbird gave the country a voice and a feeling of injustice. This feeling opened more than books, it opened minds and helped prepare the way for reforms such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The book has inspired Americans to seek justice in all that they do. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic that continues to be read and recognized, even today.

(Show Gregory Peck in Movie) “The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."


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