Mark Twain defined "a classic" as a book people praise but don't read. Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about racial persecution (and a few other things) in 1930s Alabama, "To Kill a Mockingbird," may be one of those, even if some middle and high schools still assign it. But fortunately Universal Pictures turned it into a movie that won three Academy Awards, probably has been seen by millions more people than have read the book, and has become beloved. Millions more people got a chance to see the movie on the USA television network the other night, when a digitally remastered and restored version was broadcast nationally for the first time, marking the movie's 50th anniversary. In a perfect touch, it was introduced by President Obama.
Presidential press secretary Jay Carney says "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a great movie because it shows "the need to do the right thing even when it's hard." Yes, but now that even Alabama, the setting for the story, doesn't lynch black people or railroad them judicially as crudely as the story's Tom Robinson is railroaded, the right thing may seem much easier than it really is.
With racial hatred long repudiated by public policy and social mores, "To Kill a Mockingbird" today may be more relevant to Connecticut - and more challenging - as a tribute to ordinary due process of law. That is, Robinson, a black man, is falsely accused of rape by a young white woman, Mayella Ewell, who is actually being abused by her alcoholic father. While she testifies falsely, she does so in public, in a courtroom crowded with half the community, white and black, and under her own name, just as Robinson testifies under his own name.
But today in sexual assault cases Connecticut's courts assign pseudonyms to accusers but not to defendants, a prejudicial practice that even Alabama's courts of 80 years ago would not have dared to undertake. Defendants here are identified before conviction but accusers, even false accusers, are shielded, as Connecticut might have realized six years ago upon the sensational acquittal of James C. Tillman, a black man falsely accused by a white woman of kidnapping and rape, convicted, and imprisoned for 18 years before DNA evidence exonerated him and he was released and given $5 million compensation.
Unlike Mayella Ewell in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Tillman's false accuser has never been identified publicly. And not one judge or state legislator will publicly question Connecticut's prejudicial policy of assigning pseudonyms to accusers in sexual assault cases prior to adjudication, a policy under which the court takes sides in a case before it is tried. Judges and legislators, even legislators who are lawyers, seem to lack the courage to stand up to the banshees of political correctness who insist on the essence of totalitarianism - that some accusations are so horrible that they trump ordinary due process. The banshees maintain that a certain class of people should be allowed to accuse others of felonies anonymously.
When newspapers do that sort of thing, it is libel and risks huge damage awards. But when courts do it in fear of the banshees, there is no redress.
Showing the necessity of doing the right thing, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is also remarkable for the character of Atticus Finch, a widowed lawyer of quiet but fearless integrity portrayed in the movie by Gregory Peck. At the request of the local judge, the lawyer undertakes the black man's defense though he knows it will make him an object of even greater hatred as a supposed traitor to his race. Soon he is facing down a lynch mob and his children are endangered too. Peck's portrayal is so affecting that it continues to inspire young men and women to pursue careers in the law.
With Atticus Finch "To Kill a Mockingbird" has another bit of political incorrectness not noted today. For the story may be most touching in respect to the single father's devotion to his kids. Of course today a nuclear bomb might go off over any city in Connecticut and not harm even a dozen men living with their children. Those kids face an oppression just as cruel as the one "To Kill a Mockingbird" helped overthrow.