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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”