As a Pontotoc native, I took pride in Mississippi’s slow but steady progress toward racial reconciliation. That is, until the Biloxi School District intervened.
Because “To Kill A Mockingbird” is among the most banned books in history, news that it had been banned in Biloxi eighth grades was no surprise. Following publication of the novel in July 1960, many Southern school boards banned it for inflammatory discussions of racial injustice, lynching, white religious hypocrisy, rape and incest. Bans even included author Harper Lee’s native Monroe County and Alabama, where the Ku Klux Klan tried to have the director of the Alabama Library Association fired for allowing the Pulitzer Prize winning novel in the state’s public libraries.
But no ban infuriated Lee more than the one by the Hanover School Board in Richmond, Virginia. The conservative and nationally respected Richmond News-Leader criticized the board’s “asinine performance” and created the Bumble Beadle Fund, named for a character in Charles Dickens’ book, “Oliver Twist,” also considered in its time an “immoral novel.” Lee wrote the newspaper that the board’s misrepresentation of her novel made her wonder if its members could read: “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor ..., Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. ... I feel ... that the problem is one of (the board’s) illiteracy ... Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Bumble Beadle Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”
At first, right wing ideologues, segregationists and conservative white evangelicals led the book banning/burning. Presently, banning comes more frequently over an uneasiness by Lee’s use of the “N-word” (which between 1932-1935, the setting of the novel, was as common among Southern whites as pellagra and hookworm).
Rather than re-enrolling in first grade or re-reading the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I would suggest Biloxi school administrators read the essay by San Francisco native and African American novelist, Nichelle Tramble, in the anthology entitled “On Harper Lee,” in which she defends Lee’s novel and use of a word entirely appropriate to the historical setting of the novel.
Or they could read President Barack Obama’s paraphrasing of Atticus Finch when speaking to students at Tel Aviv University: He told Jewish and Muslim students that they would never experience peace in the Middle East until they learned to climb into another person’s skin and walk in their shoes. Or watch film footage of Obama buying a copy of “Mockingbird” for his daughter, Malia’s, birthday. Or they can read Obama’s farewell address in Chicago this January: “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must heed the advice of one of the great characters of American fiction, Atticus Finch: ‘You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’” Another possibility is to find their Bible and read Galatians 3:26-28, which conveys Lee’s message in different words.
If the Sun Herald decides to create a Bumble Beadle Fund for your local school district, let me know. I will make the first contribution in honor of Harper Lee.
Wayne Flynt, distinguished university emeritus professor of Southern History, Auburn University, is the author of “Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee.”