June 13, 2007 / 1:17 AM / 12 years ago

Alabama town uses "Mockingbird" to learn from past

MONROEVILLE, Alabama (Reuters) - When Harper Lee wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird” she could not have known it would be hailed as a classic, much less that it would shape the way her hometown viewed its past.

Harvey Gaston who portrays Atticus Finch in a stage adaptation of the book "To Kill A Mockingbird" practices his lines before performing at the old Monroeville County Courthouse pictured in Monroeville, Alabama in this May 17, 2007 file photo. When Lee wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird", a novel about racial injustice in a southern town, she could not have known it would be hailed as a classic and enable her home town to learn from its own history. Historians have discovered that Lee may have based her story on an actual rape trial in the Monroeville courtroom similar to the one described in the book. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/Files

Lee’s novel has put Monroeville, Alabama, on the map and acted as a magnet for tourists. It has also stimulated debate in the town about the legacy of racial segregation that prevailed in the south until the 1960s.

Mockingbird tells the story of two children growing up in a fictional southern town similar to Monroeville. Their father, an attorney, is selected to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Though the man is innocent, he is convicted by an all-white jury. Some of the book’s most powerful moments come as the children realize their father was fighting a doomed cause.

Published in 1960, it was an instant sensation. It won the Pulitzer Prize, has sold at least 30 million copies and a film of it starring Gregory Peck is hailed as a classic.

But sales only tell part of the story. U.S. readers often cite it as their favorite novel. It ranked second only to the Bible in a reader survey of books that had affected them the most. Library Journal voted it the novel of the 20th century.

Every spring, thousands of Mockingbird tourists flock to Monroeville to visit locations associated with Lee’s life, the book and the courthouse used in the film.

They also come to watch a stage adaptation of Mockingbird. Act One takes place in the grounds of the court but for Act Two the audience and players move indoors to the original oval-shaped courthouse where the book and film are set.

That setting allows the drama to unfold with audience, judge, lawyers and defendant occupying the same positions as they would have held in a real trial. Black cast members are even confined to the gallery as they were under segregation.

For the audience, part of the fascination is being witness to injustice. For the volunteer actors, the annual productions have also allowed them to reflect on the book’s message.

“It’s taught me you don’t judge people,” said Robert Champion, a detective with the Monroeville police department who plays Boo Radley, a reclusive figure in the novel who turns out to be a hero.

“One of the lessons is that we should be tolerant of other people but intolerant of injustice,” said Champion, who prepared for the role by speaking with people who knew the real-life person on whom the character in the book is based.

FALSELY ACCUSED

Lee may have based her story on an actual rape trial that took place in Monroeville’s old courtroom, according to Jane Ellen Clark of the Monroeville County Heritage Museum.

In 1934 Walter Lett, a black man, was tried for the rape of a white woman. He was sentenced to death but according to records recently uncovered, white citizens wrote anonymously to Alabama’s governor to say he had been falsely accused.

Lett’s sentence was commuted to life in prison and he died of tuberculosis in 1937 in a state prison, Clark said.

George Thomas Jones, a former businessman who writes local history, went to school with Lee and remembers her as a tomboy similar to the character of Scout, the novel’s narrator.

Jones, 81, said he could understand why the all-white juries of the time would have returned a guilty verdict in such cases.

“People were called ‘nigger lovers.’ Regardless of the circumstances they would have been branded and they would have been social and economic outcasts,” he said.

Jones said relations between blacks and whites were in some ways better at that time despite injustices against blacks, and the social climate had been misunderstood.

“There was mutual respect and we didn’t have racial problems back in the ‘20s and ‘30s,” he said. “People that were good at heart on both sides had no problem in getting along.”

SHY PERSON

Some of the major struggles of the civil rights movement were played out in Alabama but Monroeville desegregated its public facilities quietly. The biggest change was school desegregation, according to residents.

The lack of protest didn’t mean blacks were not resentful over segregation, said Mary Tucker, who moved to the town in 1954 and taught in both black and integrated schools.

“We were separate but not equal,” she said of the difference between black and white schools.

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“In spite of our history of segregation and oppression there were always some good people who tried to be fair as Harper Lee portrayed in (the lawyer) Atticus. There were always a few good people who tried to do the right thing,” she said.

Lee, now 81, still lives in Monroeville part time, but is rarely seen in public.

“Nelle (Lee’s first name) is very unassuming, unpretentious. You may run into her in the grocery store in jeans ... She’s a very shy person,” said Tucker.

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