Today is the 46th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s iconic novel about Southern race relations, To Kill a Mockingbird.
This particular anniversary seems a bittersweet one, since the Jena 6 case suggests the central issue that Lee’s novel explores – the inability of Southern whites to see blacks as fellow Americans with equal rights – hasn’t changed:
Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand. – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
The novel is something of a roman a clef, with fans, critics, and scholars having pored over Harper Lee’s life to look for the real life counterparts to the novel’s characters. Everyone knows that Scout Finch is based upon Harper Lee herself, that Dill is based upon Lee’s cousin, writer Truman Capote, and that Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and the “hero” of the book, is based on Lee’s father Amasa, an Alabama attorney.
The novel is in two large sections – the first part deals with Scout’s begging to attend school and attendant problems she experiences as a bright, precocious kid who tries to socialize herself into the public educational system. During summer vacation she and her brother Jem, with their summer friend Dill, establish a kind of friendship with a mentally disturbed neighbor, Boo Radley, who will eventually prove to be the children’s savior.
The second part of the novel explores a rape trial of the worst kind for the Deep South of the 1930’s – a poor, ignorant white woman, Mayella Ewell, accuses a kindhearted black man, Tom Robinson, of sexually assaulting her. As a favor to the judge presiding over the case, Atticus Finch agrees to serve as Robinson’s defense attorney. Finch proves conclusively that Robinson is innocent of the crime (humiliating both Mayella and her trashy, arrogant father, Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell, in the process), but the all white, all male jury convicts him anyway. Eventually Robinson, awaiting appeal of his case, panics, runs from his guards, and is shot dead. In the novel’s shocking coda, Bob Ewell attempts murder on the Finch children, badly injuring Jem before being killed by Boo Radley.
The novel’s scenes of contrasting cultures – the threatening white lynch mob defused by Scout’s chat with the father of a school mate among the lynchers, the warm visit by the Finch children at their black maid Calpurnia’s church – paint a picture of two separate realities overlapping lovingly at some moments, colliding viciously at other moments. Lee’s details evoke a South – with its mannerliness, its bigotry, its affectation of honor and its indifference to the suffering of part of its citizens – that everyone from Wilbur J. Cash to Bill Clinton has tried to suggest will disappear/is disappearing/has disappeared. To Kill a Mockingbird may be Harper Lee’s only novel, but it is a masterwork….
But then we have Jena, Louisiana.
As New Orleans attorney and law professor Bill Quigley reports, while the South Lee depicts in her classic novel may be only history in Richmond, Charlotte, and Atlanta, perhaps even in Montgomery, Jackson, and Baton Rouge (?!), the sophistication of Cash’s “Mind of the South” seems not to have reached the small town South despite its having had more than 70 years to get there….
Quigley’s Truthout report offers these facts about the case of the kids charged in the Jena case:
# The trouble started under “the white tree” in front of Jena High School. The “white tree” is where the white students, 80 percent of the student body, would always sit during school breaks. In September 2006, a black student at Jena high school asked permission from school administrators to sit under the “white tree.” School officials advised them to sit wherever they wanted. They did. The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, were hanging from the “white tree.”
# The Jena high school principal found that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion. The white superintendent of schools over-ruled the principal and gave the students a three-day suspension saying the nooses were just a youthful stunt. “Adolescents play pranks,” the superintendent told the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”
# Black students decided to resist and organized a sit-in under the “white tree” at the school to protest the light suspensions given to the noose-hanging white students. The white district attorney then came to Jena High with law-enforcement officers to address a school assembly. According to testimony in a later motion in court, the DA reportedly threatened the black protesting students saying that if they didn’t stop making a fuss about this “innocent prank”, “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.” The school was put on lockdown for the rest of the week.
# On Friday night, December 1, a black student who showed up at a white party was beaten by whites. On Saturday, December 2, a young white man pulled out a shotgun in a confrontation with young black men at the Gotta Go convenience store outside Jena before the men wrestled it away from him. The black men who took the shotgun away were later arrested; no charges were filed against the white man.
# On Monday, December 4, at Jena High, a white student – who allegedly had been making racial taunts, including calling African-American students “niggers” while supporting the students who hung the nooses and who beat up the black student at the off-campus party – was knocked down, punched and kicked by black students. The white victim was taken to the hospital treated and released. He attended a social function that evening.
# Six black Jena students were arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder. All six were expelled from school.
# The Jena Six and their families were put under substantial pressure to plead guilty.
# The prosecutor was allowed to argue to the jury that the tennis shoes worn by one black student charged could be considered a dangerous weapon used by “the gang of black boys” who beat the white victim.
# …when the pool of potential jurors was summoned, fifty people appeared – every single one white.
# The all-white jury which was finally chosen included two people friendly with the district attorney, a relative of one of the witnesses and several others who were friends of prosecution witnesses.
# The black student who was first tried, Mychal Bell’s parents, Melissa Bell and Marcus Jones, were not even allowed to attend the trial despite their objections, because they were listed as potential witnesses. The white victim, though a witness, was allowed to stay in the courtroom. The parents, who had been widely quoted in the media as critics of the process, were also told they could no longer speak to the media as long as the trial was in session.
# Other supporters who planned a demonstration in support of Bell were ordered by the court not to do go near the courthouse or anywhere the judge would see them.
# The prosecutor called 17 witnesses – 11 white students, three white teachers and two white nurses. Some said they saw Bell kick the victim, others said they did not see him do anything. The white victim testified that he did not know if Bell hit him or not.
# The Chicago Tribune reported the public defender did not challenge the all-white jury pool, put on no evidence and called no witnesses. The public defender told the Alexandria Town Talk, after resting his case without calling any witnesses, he knew he would be second-guessed by many, but was confident that the jury would return a verdict of not guilty. “I don’t believe race is an issue in this trial. I think I have a fair and impartial jury”
# The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Mychal Bell guilty on the maximum possible charges of second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. He faces up to a maximum of 22 years in prison.
# The public defender told the press afterwards, “I feel I put on the best defense that I could.” Responding to criticism of not putting on any witnesses, the attorney said, “Why open the door for further accusations?”
Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch explains justice – and racism – this way to his son Jem:
The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, youâ€™ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and donâ€™t you forget itâ€”whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
Maybe it would be a good idea for Jena, LA, to have a town read-in and discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird. But given that they’ve had 46 years to address these same issues as they’re presented in Lee’s classic novel, perhaps it’s too soon for such an enlightened suggestion….