Politics & Policy

Why To Kill a Mockingbird Belongs in the Classroom

Tourists gather by a mural depicting a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird in Monroeville, Ala., in 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters)
A Mississippi school district pulled the book from eighth-grade curriculum because it made some people uncomfortable. It shouldn’t have.

‘Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.” So begins a 1966 letter penned by Harper Lee, author of the timeless classic To Kill a Mockingbird, to a school board determined to ban her book because of its supposed immorality. She continues:

To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink. I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

The letter resurfaces every once in a while among Lee’s fans, who have dubbed it “To Mock a Schooling Board,” as an example of her reaction to repeated attempts to ban the book because of accusations that it isn’t appropriate for children. For years, that was the primary question school boards considered: Is its approach to rape and incest and its use of profanity appropriate for children? But a different sin concerns today’s anti-Mockingbird crowd. In fact, the last time Mockingbird was challenged solely for its depiction of sexual intercourse, rape, or incest was in 2006 in Brentwood, Tenn. Since then, all five challenges — in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2016 — have involved parents or children made uncomfortable by the use of the “N-word” or the book’s depiction of racism.

Add a sixth to that list: Last week a Biloxi, Miss., school district banned the book from its eighth-grade English Language Arts classes. “Complaints” that “some language in the book . . .  makes people uncomfortable” inspired the district’s ruling, and, according to South Mississippi’s Sun-Herald, the decision was made “mid–lesson plan . . . due to the use of the ‘N’ word.”

The shift has occurred in an educational climate that seeks to banish words that cause students discomfort. Think of college students who are not so much challenging ideas they disagree with in the classroom as protesting the ideas’ inclusion at all, marching against subjects that make them uncomfortable. With its decision, the Biloxi school district has capitulated to demands to soften education, to remove any pain or discomfort. But as a means by which humans achieve intellectual growth, education is necessarily often a painful experience. Eliminating the hard stuff eliminates the reality. Even worse, the Biloxi district banned the book “mid–lesson plan.” The students were prevented from completing the the book because following the planned lesson was deemed too triggering.

The decision appears even more ludicrous when considering that Mockingbird is often lauded as an excellent way of introducing racial issues to children, since the narrator is a relatable voice: a young girl named Scout. She and her older brother Jem live with their father Atticus, who is an attorney, in a small town in Alabama in the Depression-era South. Atticus is appointed to represent a black man, Tom, who has been accused of raping a white woman, but despite significant evidence that Tom is innocent, he is convicted and later killed while attempting to escape from prison. The vice president of the Biloxi school board, Kenny Holloway, claimed that it’s okay to ban the book because “we can teach the same lesson with other books.” But one of the reasons the book has survived for so many years, through so many attempts to ban it, is because it is such a uniquely valuable teaching tool, especially in how it deals with a subject as complex and hard to present as racism.

I wonder what a letter to the Biloxi school district from Lee would look like. Known for avoiding the media and public life in the years following Mockingbird’s publication, she didn’t respond to other attempts to ban her book after 1966, at least not in a public way. (In fact, the Biloxi decision is only the second Lee didn’t live through.) But, assuming she followed the subsequent controversies, she must have been surprised to see how they evolved.

Consider a 2016 challenge to the book in Virginia. The Accomack County school district removed it, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from classrooms and libraries because of a parent’s complaint over the racial slurs included in both books. Speaking at a school-board meeting, the parent, Marie Rothstein-Williams, claimed the words “disturbed” her son, a biracial student at a district high school. “There is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that,” Rothstein-Williams told the board, “and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”

But to consider To Kill a Mockingbird racially divisive is exactly backwards. The book is invaluable both for introducing students to the reality of America’s racial past and for exposing its injustices. (Many of the book’s events were inspired by real things Lee encountered while growing up and working in Alabama; twice during Lee’s life, black men were tried and convicted of rape after false accusations made by white women.) Martin Luther King Jr. approvingly cited a scene in the novel to help explain his brand of active pacifism in his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait: “To the Negro in 1963, as to Atticus Finch,” King wrote, “nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice.”

The Biloxi school district and all the other school boards that have banned or attempted to ban Mockingbird evidently fail to understand the book’s message. It seems that another piece of Lee’s writing is timeless, for the lines from “To Mock a School Board” still ring true today: I wonder if any of the Biloxi school district’s administrators know how to read.


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