In honoring Harper Lee, we must remember what her inimitable book preached: the power to change and progress lies within each of us.
Headlines these days are dominated by Election 2016, often hijacked by the shenanigans (and worse) of Donald Trump. We look to our political leaders, and future leaders, and see wars of words, dirty political tricks, whisper smear campaigns, and a new low yesterday, with a tweet war erupting between Trump and… the Pope.
If you believe power lies in politics alone, then America is reveling in destruction.
And the divides in our country – between left and right, red and blue, black and white, college grads and working class – appear insurmountable.
But what we must remember is that politicians are not always the ones to bring healing. In fact, they are often behind the curve, behind the times.
I think of that today, in commemorating the passing away of one of America’s greatest literary gifts: Harper Lee.
In a time of great civil unrest, and great racial injustice, Harper Lee wrote and published To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that bestowed upon us the inimitable pluck and courage of Scout. The dogged commitment to justice of Atticus Finch. The human cost of a rigged judicial system and a racist society in Tom Robbinson.
To Kill a Mockingbird is regarded as one of the greatest American novels for its subject matter, but more so because Lee never reduced her characters to one-note actors. Scout, Atticus, Tom – they are three-dimensional, flawed people. Which is precisely why we recognize them on the page.
It is also what makes their fight against evil so inspiring.
Here are imperfect people, small-town southern people, risking their career, their well-being, their reputation, their life, for this one idea.
This beautiful, integral, American idea.
That all people are created equal, and all are equal under the law.
That idea is at the heart of Atticus’ argument, that Tom cannot be convicted of a horrific crime without any evidence against him. That Tom cannot be considered guilty solely on the basis of his skin color.
It is strange and haunting, that such an idea still needs to be argued, still needs an audience, all these decades later. We’ve made progress, no doubt. But our country suffers yet from racial divides that dictate far too much of a person’s future.
So I want to honor Harper Lee today, and write to empower any of those discouraged among us by our current election process to remember this:
Politicians don’t always change things.
But the people – writers, artists, musicians, dancers, bankers, lawyers, parents, neighbors – they can.
And they do.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee moved the people of America. With the publication of her seminal novel, Lee arguably changed the course of race relations in America as much as any political figure.
For that, we are forever indebted.
May you rest in peace, Harper Lee.