I was once in a group where we were asked to identify a book that had made a significant difference in our lives. When I mentioned Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," one person in the group laughed. I assumed then – and still do – that the person had never read the book nor understood its importance to a generation of people born and raised in a region where racism was common.
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The book was published 50 years ago – July 11, 1960 – and has never gone out of print.
Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and the book became an Academy Award-winning film, but she never wrote another book. Even so, the story of young Scout Finch and her father, Atticus, has helped many to reconsider racism both then and now.
I read the book as a college freshman attending a segregated university in the South. I did four years of college on a campus where the only African-Americans were custodians and service personnel. It was a time of racial unrest and outright conflict.
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As a young Christian who was struggling with how to reconcile what I had lived with what I was learning from my study of Scripture and discussion with friends, the story of white people who were willing to take a stand in opposition to community standards was a revelation. I came to understand that discrimination based on the color of one's skin was wrong in a court of law or in society at large.
Lee captured both the prejudice of a culture and the fearlessness of Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer who was willing to defend a black man unjustly accused of rape. Through the eyes of a child, she cut through the extraneous and unimportant to the heart of the matter – there are times when a person must take a stand for the right.
The lesson is never over, of course. It is one that we need to reconsider as individuals and as a society on a regular basis. Prejudice always raises its ugly head, especially in times of stress or crisis, and must be exposed for what it is again and again.
Thank you, Harper Lee, for helping us to deal with our demons and find new ways to love others. We still need the help.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. This column appeared previously on his blog.