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Harper Lee's Trump Card

22/02/2016 20:28 GMT | Updated 21/02/2017 10:12 GMT

I suppose I'd say a mockingbird sings for Harper Lee, now passed on.

I'd also love to say I'd walked down Monroeville's main street one fine day and caught a short glimpse of a certain sharp-eyed lady on the other sidewalk; or marched in Topeka regarding the right of blacks to mingle with whites in the schoolyard and schoolroom (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 1954).

However, the 1954 decision which began to bring segregation to an end did not avert the fatal lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 (upon whom and upon whose case Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird may partly have been based), still required Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat for a white passenger on a bus (December 1955), necessitated near-forcible educational integration (Little Rock Central High School, 1957), sit-ins at drug stores and similar (1958-1960), Freedom Rides (1961), the Birmingham Campaign (April-May 1963) and the historic March on Washington (August 1963) where Martin Luther King gave his equally historic "I Have a Dream" speech before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was finally signed by Lyndon B. Johnson after fifty-four days of filibustering on the part of Southern senators.

All still a long way in the future for the tired old town of Maycomb in the early nineteen-thirties. Based on real-life Monroeville, it was the fictional setting for Mockingbird and home to Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch and Scout.

I'd like to say I was there for some of those days, but I wasn't even born.

Strangely enough, though, I've been close by a couple of places you might not have thought a travelling Autist would so easily reach. Crossing America in 2012, I just happened to "sough into Topeka like a strung-out piece of half-chewed taffy, and come ingloriously to a shuddering halt."

And there I found "an old school building south east on Monroe..." As I rapidly learned (crippled information-processing abilities allowing), Monroe Elementary (now a museum) was one of the four segregated schools upon which Brown v. Board had centred, where the movement which led to 1964's Civil Rights Act had started. I'd sort of known the Civil Rights Movement in America had taken place in the Sixties, but I was far from familiar with its Fifties roots...

I saw the site where it all started, and remember putting down my rucksack on the corner of 15th and Monroe.

There's an old quote about that. And funnily enough it comes from Mockingbird:

"Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them."

So I stood in the shoes of a man from Topeka and the following year found myself down in Mobile, Alabama at dawn, vainly trying to reach Monroeville, talking with a black lady from the Caribbean who'd actually heard of Dear Miss Landau, thinking of an old news clipping reprinted in Bill Bryson's Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:

MOBILE, ALA. (AP)- The Alabama Supreme Court yesterday upheld a death sentence imposed on a Negro handyman, Jimmy Wilson, 55, for robbing Mrs Estelle Barker of $1.95 at her home last year. Mrs Barker is white.

Des Moines Register, 23 August 1958

About then, that old survival sense of mine (partly based on another quote of Bryson's) quietly spoke up:

"This was only five years after three freedom riders were murdered in Mississippi. They were a twenty-one-year-old black from Mississippi named James Chaney and two white guys from New York, Andrew Goodman, twenty, and Michael Schwerner, twenty. I give their names because they deserve to be remembered. They were arrested for speeding, taken to the Neshoba County Jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and never seen again - at least not until weeks later when their bodies were hauled out of a swamp. These were kids, remember. The police had released them to a waiting mob, which had taken them away and done things to them that a child wouldn't do to an insect."

(Bill Bryson. The Lost Continent)

Based on that, and in the absence of any local bus service, I did not try to hitch-hike:

For Bryson, "this was and always would be the South;" but for Harper Lee and me, despite the Civil Rights sufferings of her times and their resonance with recent riots in Ferguson, St. Louis, the South was yet beautiful, like a boutique of sunny belles who "by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

Seen through a child's eyes, it seems Mockingbird gave Southerners a non-threatening way to question a culture and tradition of racism and Northerners a chance to see beyond stereotypes of Klans, rednecks and lynchings. It showed the limits of the law, the fact that justice was not always done, that the constitutional lynchpin "all men are created equal" was ignored far too often both by court and citizen; and it presented that question in a way which somehow crossed society's codes and barriers without itself amounting to a breach of the peace or a book to be burnt (albeit occasionally banned).

For a single book to damp down racism and decrease division was the Trump card of a life well-lived and words well-written; and they stand in stark contrast to a present-day campaign of unchristian division and racism which, quite categorically, is doing the exact opposite.

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau and The Legend of John Macnab. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.

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