Killing the Mockingbird: Historical and Contemporary Efforts to Ban Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”

To Kill A Mockingbird has certainly proven to be troublesome literature over the years. Ever since Harper Lee’s novel stormed the literary world in 1960, becoming an overnight success by selling in its first year alone more than 500,000 copies, there have been thousands of attempts to have the book banned from classroom or curriculum use and removed from public schools and libraries in towns and cities all across the U.S. and Canada. Indeed, To Kill A Mockingbird is generally listed in the top fifty—at times in the top five—of the most frequently challenged books of the twentieth century. Some of these challenges, spearheaded by opponents on both the political right and left, white and black, have been successful or temporarily successful in having the book removed or banned, while other attempts managed only to stir up controversy, make a flash in the news and then petered out.[1]

          Parents, organizations, groups and even students have given a variety of reasons for convincing us that killing the mockingbird would be in our children’s—and ultimately society’s—best interests. In one of these earliest attempts in 1966, for example, the Hanover County School Board in Richmond, Virginia ordered the book removed from all county libraries because, in their opinion, a novel about rape was “immoral literature.” So ludicrous was this rationale that the unpretentious Harper Lee herself jumped into the controversial fray and made it embarrassingly clear in an editorial in the Richmond News-Leader that the school board members had not even bothered to read or understand her book. And being the nice small-town girl from Monroeville, Alabama that she was, and emulating the socially conscious Atticus Finch, Lee figured the only excuse was that perhaps they couldn’t read, so she kindly sent a contribution out of her own pocket to help enroll the school board members in a literacy program.[2]

          Other critics of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book have sought its removal because, like the Hanover Country School Board, they too felt it was immoral or obscene—or a threat to community and traditional values. In 1977, To Kill A Mockingbird was temporarily banned in Eden Valley, Minnesota because of objectionable words used in the novel, such as “damn” and “whore lady.” A few years later, the book was challenged in a New York school district because some people there considered it a “filthy, trashy novel.” In 2001, a Glynn County, Georgia school board member, energized by the protests of parents, worked to squelch the mockingbird and anything else—books, educational programs and activities—which managed to set off the profanity beepers of their moral radars. And as recently as 2004, the Charles County (Maryland) Board of Education seriously considered proposals to censor books deemed inappropriate for children, including To Kill A Mockingbird.[3]

          In one interesting case study from the 1980s on efforts to censor To Kill A Mockingbird, researcher Jill May found that there had been at least ten common objections raised against the novel since in was first published, most falling under the category of threatening traditional values and societal norms. Some of these include:

 

“the portrayal of conflict between children and their

elders … profanity and questionable language;

ungrammatical speech by characters; depictions of

violence; references to sex; negative statements about

authority; the lack of portrayal of the  family unit as

the basis of American life; and references to the super-

natural and witchcraft” (we know this one all too well

with the swirl of controversy over the Harry Potter

series).[4]      

         

          Interestingly, while doing research for this paper, I found very little mainstream southern opposition of To Kill A Mockingbird, or overt challenges to the book in libraries and classrooms in the 1960s South—although the study I just cited claims that until the mid-sixties “complaints came from southern conservatives.” I have to admit that due to my own preconceived, stereotypical notions, I fully expected to find the South of the 1960s rising up more fervently to challenge the book—particularly a book of such magnitude and popularity, and one that was made into a movie—as an offense to southern sensibilities. And certainly the challenges that did arise over the novel’s perceived threat to traditional southern or family values, without mentioning race per se, such as when the Hanover County School Board criticized the story as immoral because it was about rape, nevertheless masked the racial prejudice of the day and the enduring sexual taboos between white females and black males. Interestingly, at the time To Kill A Mockingbird came under fire in Hanover County, a Virginia law forbidding interracial marriage was being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court—a challenge initiated by Richard and Mildred Loving after they were taken from their house in the middle of the night and hauled off to jail for miscegenation.[5]

But other than white supremacy groups, both then and now, which openly criticized the novel as anti-white, there does not appear to have been much explicit southern or white protest to Lee’s portrayal of the general state of race relations in the 1930s South. Perhaps that’s because To Kill A Mockingbird was probably not required reading in the southern classroom during this time—at least not as extensively as it is now with more than 70 percent of schools using the book as part of their standard literature curriculum—so there was little opportunity for breeding heated, public opposition.[6] I don’t know for sure. Maybe somebody here can shed more light on this. And by the time it was a classroom tool in southern schools, the once burning race issue had abated as an acceptable motivator for literary censorship and other issues such as profanity or threat to values—the nuts and bolts of literary censorship and, by the way, still often entangled with racism, sexism and xenophobia—became the rallying cries of a the day.

 Also, an important point that we should keep in mind is that To Kill A Mockingbird had an immeasurably positive impact on the lives of its readers—with white southerners as no exception. According to a 1991 survey by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, To Kill A Mockingbird was second only to the Bible in being “most often citied as making a difference” in people’s lives.[7] Indeed, Harper Lee’s emotionally riveting and disturbing portrayal of racism in the Deep South led many whites to confront and question their own inherited racial prejudices. For example, political commentator and Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, James Carville, who had spent his formative years growing up in the 1960s South, experienced a personal transformation after reading the novel. “I just knew, the minute I read it, that she was right and that I had been wrong,” he revealed in an interview.[8]  And if the hot-headed Carville, known as the ragin’ Cajun, could change his thinking, then surely southerners of a milder temperament had seen the light. In short, Harper Lee may have very well succeeded in reaching the heart and thereby awakening the southern white conscience, both individually and perhaps collectively—giving pause for genuine introspection rather than fuel for opposition.

There were, however, what one might consider more thoughtful criticisms to the novel in the South, relatively speaking. Some historians and others have pointed out that fiction like To Kill A Mockingbird serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes of poor whites. In his book, Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites, published by the University of Alabama Press, historian Wayne Flynt, for example, believes that the novel gives “poor whites no respite” and relies on “familiar stereotypes.” This is most vividly illustrated, explains Flynt, when Lee depicts the troublesome Ewells as “poor white trash,” giving a host of reasons to convince us of this beyond a shadow of a doubt.[9] Indeed, most of the white characters in To Kill A Mockingbird, with the exception of the Finch family, and perhaps some of their open-minded neighbors and friends, such as Maudie Atkinson and Dolphus Raymond, are presented as poor, whether traditionally so or as a result of the depression, and blindly dominated by raw impulses, most notably their native prejudices against African Americans.

But therein lies the power of the story, in my opinion, to move white readers to question their inherited assumptions about race. As Scout Finch—the precocious nine-year-old narrator in To Kill A Mockingbird—is enveloped in the racism of the day, her developing mind is being impressed by the common negative stereotypes and racial expletives that she daily receives from her peers and some of the adults in her life. Yet her father Atticus intervenes and challenges those societal norms before she is conditioned to blindly accept the degradation of African Americans as an acceptable feature of the community in which she lives. So there is an interesting juxtaposition between the worlds in which this little girl moves—an external world dominated by the pressure to conform to the powerful, institutional racism of the day, and the other one, a personal, loving and safe world, where normative racist beliefs are challenged and rejected.

Is this done at the expense of poor southern whites? The answer is probably yes. Does this accurately reflect the racial climate of the 1930s South? While certainly not every white person during this period approved of or blindly accepted Jim Crow and racial stereotypes—with some even working to improve race relations—and although “tensions between the races eased somewhat during the ‘thirties” as both whites and blacks grappled with the Great Depression,[10] anti-black racism was unfortunately a common and rarely challenged feature of southern life then, and would remain so for more than twenty years from the time of the fictional setting in To Kill A Mockingbird

Growing up black in Selma, Alabama during the Depression Era, J.L Chestnut described poignantly this rarely questioned, entrenched feature of southern life when he wrote:

 

          “If you were black, the significance of race wasn’t

          something you suddenly discovered. It wasn’t even

          something you had to be told. It was something you

          just grew up knowing, something almost instinctual

… It was just the way things were, and folk accommo-

dated themselves to it”[11]

 

And Harper Lee, I believe, vividly captured in her novel this seemingly instinctual understanding of race—“just the way things were”—that Chestnut experienced during his early childhood in 1930s Selma. Southern whites, inevitably, unfortunately, but realistically come out as the purveyors of this system of domination, even if it was only by the blind acquiescence of most white people—in both To Kill A Mockingbird and the real-life South of the 1930s—who simply accepted without question the unjust system of southern race relations passed on to them.

I want to point out, however, that African Americans did not always accommodate themselves to Jim Crow and racial injustice during the Depression Era. One of the criticisms of To Kill A Mockingbird is that Maycomb, Alabama blacks are presented as a faceless group and portrayed as simply passive victims of racial discrimination. But African Americans sometimes protested the racism of the day both overtly, as when they marched on Washington, DC to protest of the infamous Scottsboro case in which nine young black men were falsely charged with raping a white woman, and in more subtle ways, such as refusing to give deference to whites and by joining activist organizations such as the NAACP—including the NAACP in Alabama which during the 1920s and 30s experienced unprecedented growth.[12]      

 

The most consistent and enduring as well as impassioned opposition to this controversial novel, however, has come from African American and African Canadian teachers, leaders, school board members, organizations, parents and students. Beginning in the 1970s and 80s, overt challenges grew with such frequency that by the 1990s and here in the first decade of the twenty-first century opposition can be found almost everywhere.

          One of the earliest of these heated challenges came in 1981 when black parents fervently worked to ban To Kill A Mockingbird in the Warren, Indiana Township schools because they felt it did “psychological damage to the positive integration process” and “represent[ed] institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.” Since then, the onslaught of challenges to the novel in the classroom and to its stage adaptation in high school drama departments emerged in school districts all over the U.S. and Canada, including in Normal, Illinois; Kansas City, Missouri; Santa Cruz, California; Muskogee, Oklahoma; Anchorage, Alaska; and Nova Scotia, Canada. These heated challenges revolved around racial expletives and themes, particularly the “N” word—used 48 times in the novel according to one protest survey—and other demeaning racial language and references deemed offensive.[13]

          My initial response to all of these challenges and efforts to ban To Kill A Mockingbird was, firstly, utter shock that such a significant piece of ‘conscience awakening’ American literature could be the recipient of such individual and organized opposition and protest. And next, I felt disdain for any attempts to censor literature, or any information, along with pity for those who were so fearful of different ideas and experiences that they believed they had a right to tell the rest of us what was appropriate or inappropriate literature. I felt that what we was dealing with here were something akin to the “memory hole” from George Orwell’s 1984, where concepts, people and words are sent into oblivion.

After all, book banning and censoring were nothing new and seemed to always reveal ignorance, superstition and fear—indeed, were not book censors simply dogged reactionaries to truth and progress? The Catholic Church, for example, had made it their professional duty to officially censor books in their infamous List or Index of Prohibited Books, including groundbreaking scientific texts, sometimes with the penalty of ostracism, torture or death for those who violated Rome’s censorship edicts. These included Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, a then controversial book that proposed the kooky idea that the Earth moved around the Sun, rather than vice versa. Indeed, the church got so fed up with this unorthodox idea, that when one of its greatest proponents, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, added to his defense of the revolving Earth theory his disagreement with sacred church doctrines, he was burned at the stake.[14]

Totalitarian and fascist regimes have also made it a common practice to ban and censor books and information, including holding book-burning celebrations. I found one interesting picture of impeccably dressed Nazi officers, for example, walking down the steps of a Gothic-style library, looking calm and friendly, with their arms full of books on the way to the fire. Ironically, it was a German-Jewish playwright and poet over a hundred years earlier, Heinrich Heine, whose fictional character responded to the burning of the Koran by warning, “The burning is but a prologue: where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too,” an eerily prophetic warning that played out as the Nazi’s went from burning books in 1930s Germany, including Heine’s books, to human beings during the dreadful Holocaust (incidentally, a century earlier, Heine’s books were also included on the Catholic church’s List of Prohibited Books). [15] 

And democratic societies are not immune to censorship and the manipulation of information. American news, for example, revolves around a restricted discourse and narrow interpretation of ideas and world affairs, and is habitually quick to exclude or dismiss alternative opinions, yet still often parades under the universal banner of “fair and balanced” or “world coverage.” Advertisers, political commentators, new analysts and corporations feed us a daily diet—often fear-based—of their own interpretive analysis of what we are seeing and hearing on their carefully regulated and sponsored news, commercials and public affairs programs. So subtle is this form of information manipulation that most of us are not even aware that it is taking place. It certainly goes over my head sometimes.

While researching this talk, however, I was perhaps most surprised to discover that not only do books daily come under fire from those that feel their worldview is being threatened or challenged, such as the always troublesome Catcher in the Rye—the thorn of all thorns for the moral literary police—but that book burnings are today more common in the U.S. than I ever realized. The Harry Potter books, for example, have been burned in ceremonial purges all over the U.S. In Greenville, Michigan in 2003, several members of a church burned not only Harry Potter books, but also the Book of Mormon, non-King James version Bibles and strangely enough, a Shania Twain album.[16]

Yet despite all of this disturbing book censorship and bizarre burnings, I still had a nagging feeling that perhaps I should take a closer look at African American and Canadian opposition of To Kill A Mockingbird, particularly since black junior high and high school students have often expressed deep concerns over the novel’s racial themes and language. As one significant study points out, “Many students of African heritage finds the experience of taking up To Kill A Mockingbird in class a troubling one.”[17] Plus, it may be worthwhile, I thought, to take the advice of Atticus Finch seriously—advice that makes him one of the most endearing fictional characters of all time—when he famously said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”[18] Excellent advice Atticus!

While my own biases prompt me to dismiss most of the opposition to Harper Lee’s novel as fear-based and reactionary—something I can live with—I think that there may be legitimate reasons on the part of African Americans and Canadians to have To Kill A Mockingbird removed from classroom use. The most often cited concern revolves around the use of the “N” word within the text, as mentioned a minute ago, usually associated with a further degrading and devaluing reference to blacks such as stupid, worthless, deserving of death by lynching or shooting, dogs and trash. For example, the cantankerous old Mrs. Dubose tells Jem Finch, “Your father’s no better than the “N” and trash he works for!”[19]

Now from a white perspective that may seem to be no big deal—it was the regional language of the time period and Lee is ultimately condemning such behavior. Moreover, it is easy for white readers to take comfort in the fact that the central characters disapprove of the way African Americans are treated and subsequently they are led to see an antiracist message in the novel. White students can moreover distance themselves from such language on a personal level. But try to imagine a young black freshman student in a mostly white classroom, surrounded by his or her peers, as To Kill A Mockingbird is being read and discussed out loud. For such a young student, this language has a powerfully and embarrassingly negative connotation, with attention, in most cases, inevitably drawn towards them when such racial expletives and negative references are read. For some, it becomes a heavy burden to bear. One real-life student named Bob, for example, recalled the discomfort he felt when the novel was read out loud in his freshman English class: “The reaction from kids, right, they look straight at you … they keep looking at you.” Another black female student remembered how she felt like “shrinking … like leaving the class.” Yet another student, Chris, explained how his teacher would become coy and peer at him every time a racial word or reference was mentioned. And one young lady, Jocelyn, recalled how certain racist and negative references in the novel made her cry in class.[20]

I was perhaps most inspired to “climb in the skin” of the novel’s opponents after reading the story of an African American eighth-grade student at Stanford Middle School in Durham, North Carolina named Garvey Jackson. After students took turns reading the book aloud in his class one day, Garvey felt very embarrassed and ultimately offended by the use of the “N” word, something he did not expect to hear. “Just to put it simple, I felt uncomfortable,” explained the thirteen-year-old.[21]

Garvey suppressed his displeasure over the novel until he happened to see a television documentary about the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina that took place during the Civil Rights Era, incidentally just a few months before the original release of To Kill A Mockingbird. Immediately inspired by the students courage and determination, Garvey enlisted the help of his family to assist him in launching a protest campaign against the use of the novel in the classroom at Stanford Middle School. Supported by his parents, he went to school wearing a t-shirt created by his sister covered in racial phrases from the book to protest the usage of the language in the classroom readings.[22]

When he was told to cover up his shirt, Garvey responded, “If it’s good enough for the book, it’s good enough for the shirt.” The next week Garvey handed out a letter to his classmates “explaining that the book offends him, and why it shouldn’t be used.” A few days later, right before his class watched the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird, the young activist attempted to pass out armbands to his classmates in protest. Although Garvey was not successful in having the book banned, his parents later held a mock public funeral for the novel, burying it in a cemetery as a “form of nonviolent protest,” in the words of Garvey’s father.[23]

Garvey’s passionate protest seems to be more or less representative of the feelings many African Americans and Canadians share about the novel, including some NAACP branches around the country. One study found that “students of African heritage” in Ontario schools “were almost unanimous in their condemnation” of To Kill A Mockingbird. And a survey conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found that there were 691 references to the novel at eight Ivy League college websites, with 400 at the University of Pennsylvania alone, and just one reference to the book at the websites of two of the most prominent historically black colleges, Morehouse and Spelman.[24]

          Indeed, there appears to be a striking difference between the way many whites and blacks perceive and interpret To Kill A Mockingbird. I make no bones about the fact that I enjoy this book and the movie adaptation. But I am white. I have not experienced racial discrimination, historically and today, with all of its personally degrading and hateful slurs, language, posturing, devaluation and hurtful behavior—all aspects of racism powerfully and explicitly portrayed in Harper Lee’s novel. Even black students who may not have experienced these things on a daily basis, or do not have a conscious awareness of the complete historical background of Jim Crow, are nevertheless suddenly thrust into assuming this weighty burden with little or no preparation as the novel is read out loud in class. 

          With all considered, how do we preserve this amazing work of literature in our schools and at the same time assure that the dignity of black students offended by its racial language and themes is respected? Perhaps you all have some ideas. I can only toss out a few suggestions that may or may not be feasible, or even wise. First, maybe To Kill A Mockingbird should be adapted to history rather than English curriculums in high schools. Then the book could be read, examined and discussed as not only a literary work but also as an historical text of the Jim Crow Era, along with other supplemental historical materials. This would place the book’s intense racial themes and language within a larger context that could possibly mitigate the singularly emotionally charged racial rhetoric that comes from reading the novel alone.[25] Another suggestion is that To Kill A Mockingbird should not even be required reading in 9th-grade English classes, but instead used only in the curriculums of 11th or 12th-grade English classes, or perhaps college freshman English. This would allow students to approach the novel with more maturity and confidence, along with a better understanding of the historical background.

And perhaps we should face up to the reality that this “conscience awakening” literature is directed at or speaks to the white conscience. In that regard, paradoxically, and as strange as this may sound, we may be able to view To Kill A Mockingbird as an indirect form of black protest written by a white writer—a coming of age novel during the turbulent Civil Rights Era—that enabled the white conscience to see and feel through its fictional characters and the world in which they move the naked injustice, shame and horror of racial prejudice. And as readers in the past have been inspired to examine their own racial prejudice, perhaps the novel can help us today to take a deep look at the fears that still separate us from each other—everything from efforts to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S., to the stereotyping of Muslims and fear of immigrants in the media, to all of the apocalyptic visions in pop culture that trumpet the end of the world simply because we cannot imagine recreating together something better in a world full of seemingly inevitable chaos.  

Finally, I think we can imaginatively see this novel as reflective of the black moral commitment to nonviolence in the civil rights struggle. Besides the fact that Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout not to physically fight under any circumstance, and to put herself in the skin of others—even if they should happen to provoke her short temper—there is a vivid scene in the movie adaptation that captures Atticus’s passionate dedication to nonviolence. In this climatic scene near the end of the movie, a drunken Bob Ewell confronts Atticus, played by Gregory Peck, in Tom Robinson’s yard. As Peck walks up to Ewell, the camera films the scene in such a way that as he gets closer he gets bigger. Indeed, once he gets within a few feet of Ewell, Peck seems like a giant, with overly broad shoulders and an intense look on his face. We are immediately aware that with one swipe he could crush the bullying Ewell. And when Ewell spits in Peck’s face, everything stops, and we wait—and perhaps hope—to see if in this one instance he will violate his own ethics and strike back. After all, he not only has a physical advantage over Ewell, but he has more than enough justification to let the antagonist have it—Ewell had raped and abused his own daughter and then pinned the crime on an innocent man, Tom Robinson, which ultimately led to Robinson’s death. But Peck slowly pulls out a handkerchief, wipes the spit from his face, walks around Ewell, gets in his car and without a word, he drives away.[26] While Harper Lee was writing To Kill A Mockingbird, African Americans were being spit on by Bob Ewells, both literally and figuratively, all over the South, and they too chose not to physically strike back. Is it possible to see Atticus Finch as a composite of these brave souls who were engaging Jim Crow and the ugly racism of the day with the power of their hearts rather than their fists? I think so, but the reader or viewer must ultimately decide.

This all may not answer the question of how we preserve this novel and at the same time assure that the dignity of black students is respected, but if we take the novel’s central theme seriously—putting ourselves in the “skin” of others—then maybe we can genuinely find a way to make the text more universally meaningful.

 [1]Claudia Durst Johnson, To Kill A Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 13, 15; American Library Association, Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (http://www.ala.org/ala/pio/piopresskits/bbbwpresskit/bannedchallenged.htm);

Alice Hackett and James Burke, Eighty Years of Best Sellers (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1977), 25-75.

[2]Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2006), 254-55.

[3]American Library Association, Banned and/or Challenged Books: “To Kill A Mocking Bird, Harper Lee” (http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/bbwlinks/ reasonsbanned.htm); Joshua Partlow, “School Board Goals Draw Impassioned Opposition,” Washington Post, October 14, 2004. 

[4]Jill P. May, “Censors as Critics: To Kill A Mockingbird as Case Study,” in Cross-Culturalism in Children’s Literature: Selected Papers from the Children’s Literature Association (New York: Pace University Press, 1988), 6. Also see, Johnson, 14-15.

[5]Dionne Walker, “Pioneer of interracial marriage looks back,” USA Today, unspecified date, 2007 (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-06-10-loving_N.htm0.

[6]“To Kill A Mockingbird,” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To Kill_a_Mockingbird); Richard Beach and James Marshall, Teaching Literature in Secondary Schools (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 153.

[7]Survey quoted in Johnson, 14.

[8]Gary Wills, “From the Campaign Trail: Clinton’s Hell Raiser,” New Yorker (October 1992), 93.

[9]Wayne Flynt, Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985), 214-215.

[10]C, Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 118.

[11]J.L. Chestnut, Jr. and Julia Cass, Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut, Jr.—Politics and Power in a Small American Town (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 21, 22.

[12]Michael, V. Uschan, The Scottsboro Case (New York: Garth Stevens Publishing, Inc., 2004), 30-32; Kevern Verney, “Long is The Way and Hard: The NAACP in Alabama, 1913-1945,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, NA, Atlanta, Georgia, September 26, 2006.

Also, during the period when NAACP branches were unfolding and growing in the South, Gunnar Myrdal observed, “If all the difficulties under which a Negro protest movement has to work in the South are remembered, it is rather remarkable, in the final analysis, that the NAACP has been able to keep up and slowly build out its network of branches in the region, and that several of the Southern branches have been so relatively active … the great majority … back its program,” An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1944), 825-26.  

[13]American Library Association, Banned and/or Challenged Books: “To Kill A Mocking Bird, Harper Lee” (http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/bbwlinks/ reasonsbanned.htm)); “Huck Finn, Mockingbird Censored,” Education Reporter, December 2003: 215; “A proposal regarding the usage of the novel To Kill A Mockingbird,” Nova Scotia, quoted in Isaac Saney, “The Case Against To Kill a Mockingbird,” Race & Class: A Journal for Black and Third World Liberation 45:1 (July-September, 2003), 100; and Doris Betts, “The Mockingbird’s Throat: A Personal Reflection,” in Alice Hall Petry, ed., On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2007), 139. 

[14] Owen Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 2; Kenneth J. Atchity, ed., The Renaissance Reader (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996) 253.

[15]“Book Banning,” May 27, 2007, The Alien Next Door, Musings of Nina Munteanu, SF writer and Ecologist (http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot. com/2007_05_01_archive.html). This is an interesting web site that highlights historical and contemporary efforts to ban and burn books. Also, see Philip Kossoff, Valiant Heart: A Biography of Heinrich Heine (New York: Cornwell Books, 1983). 

[16]“Community responds to book burning,” The Detroit News, August 7, 2003.

[17]James Ryan, Race and Ethnicity in Multi-Ethnic Schools (Ontario: Multilingual Ltd., 1999), 134.

[18]Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (New York: Warner Brothers Inc., 1982) 30. Atticus Finch, portrayed by Gregory Peck in the movie adaptation, was named the greatest American hero in film of the twentieth century by the American Film Institute. See “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Heroes and Villains,” AFI.com.

[19]Lee, 102.

[20]These student testimonials are all taken from Ryan, 134.

[21]Durham Herald-Sun, February 15, 2007, Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, Censorship Debate, Schools (http://www.abffe.org/bbw-ala-durham.htm).

[22]Ibid. For an excellent account and scholarly treatment of the Greensboro sit-ins, and other sit-ins throughout the South, see Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984),188-228.

[23]Ibid. For other recent and active challenges of To Kill A Mockingbird, see Daniel de Vise, “Montgomery Finds Racial Slur Offends, No Matter the Context,” Washington Post, July 13, 2007; Brian Bauld, “Don’t Kill the Mockingbird,” Halifax Herald Limited, May 9, 2002; and Saney, 99-105. 

[24]Ryan, 134; Kevin Uhrich, “Killing Mockingbirds: Parents, NAACP say racially insensitive language in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ send the wrong message to today’s children,” Pasadena Weekly, March 16, 2006; “The Staying Power of To Kill A Mockingbird,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Latest News, August 3, 2006.

[25]There have been some efforts to prepare students for books such as To Kill A Mockingbird in English classes by placing the racially charged themes and language within a “contextual period” before the classroom readings begin. But even these can stir up controversy. See “Montgomery Finds Racial Slur Offends, No Matter the Context,” Washington Post, July 13, 2007. 

[26]Alan J. Pakula, prod., Robert Mulligan, dir., To Kill A Mockingbird (Hollywood, CA: Universal Pictures, 1962).

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15 Responses to “Killing the Mockingbird: Historical and Contemporary Efforts to Ban Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird””

  1. Charles J Shields Says:

    Good piece! Very thorough and well-written.

    Best,

    Charles J. Shields
    author, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

  2. Sam Huber Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and important survey of both worthy and remarkable reactions to “our national novel,” as author Mary McDonagh Murphy describes it. While it is not hard to anticipate, especially in retrospect, many of the objections of those who used to call themselves “the moral majority,” it is essential to consider seriously the historical record of African-American and African-Canadian discomfort with the canonization of Lee’s work, objections perhaps somewhat less predictable to many. As you so well put it, above all this novel reminds us of the importance of the hard work of climbing into others’ skins and walking around in them.

  3. Zoe Says:

    Very insightful essay. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and I am highly against censorship. I believe that books such as this and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provide historical insight to what life was like in the past. We can use that information to make a better tomorrow, and it is truly unfortunate that this is overlooked because of historically correct word usage.

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    […]Killing the Mockingbird: Historical and Contemporary Efforts to Ban Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” « Nicholaspatler’s Weblog[…]…

  6. Shy-Kyra Says:

    i am a 14 year old female and i would like to say banning the WORK OF ART from Harper Lee is banning the work of art FROM OUR GOD that was offensive to our non-christians right??

  7. Lisa Says:

    I have to tell you, I used this essay for my sophomore English class that just finished reading TKMB. It’s a predominately white school and when we finished reading the book they were madly in love with Scout, Dill, Atticus and the whole gang. They could never imagine why anyone would ban this book from schools. We read your essay as a class which greatly opened their eyes to current racial issues and emotions. The class participated in a debate where they discussed their thoughts on the book in light of new information about the comfort level and feelings of African Americans toward the book. Their final for the unit was to write a response essay in which they chose a position of for banning the book in schools or against.
    I was greatly impressed by the level of thoughtfulness and reflection they had while approaching this essay and I felt like they were challenged to reach higher levels of thinking and discussion. I appreciate you writing an essay that compliments the text so thoroughly and yet also calls us to question if the end justifies the means.
    Thank you! The sophomores loved it.

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    […]Killing the Mockingbird: Historical and Contemporary Efforts to Ban Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” « Nicholaspatler’s Weblog[…]…

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  11. Nick Says:

    thank you so much this helped me with a research paper i had to write.

  12. Banned Books Week: “To Kill a Mockingbird” « Friends of the Rochester Public Library Says:

    […] In the midst of my extensive internet search, I came upon the most wonderful article by Nicholas Patler on his weblog, Nicholaspatler’s Weblog (www.nicholaspatler.wordpress.com).  Patler had taken the time to answer the questions, long before I’d ever even begun my search.  In fact, Patler’s article was so well researched and written that I felt the need to share it on this blog.  With the author’s permission, I am reprinting his article in its entirety.  For the original article, you can follow this link. […]

  13. Lisa Says:

    Great opinion piece. I’m about to teach To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth grade English students, so this was very helpful to me and food for thought.

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