Musing and Mockingbirds
I am sure you are each familiar with the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It was published in 1960 and became immensely popular selling millions of copies. The book has been translated into over 40 languages. In 1961 it won a Pulitzer Prize. The novel has been praised for its thoughtful and yet honest treatment of racism and prejudice in the depression era American South.
In 1963, the book was turned into movie starring Gregory Peck and it was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, winning three.
The story’s main protagonist is “Scout” Finch, the elementary age daughter of one of the town’s attorneys named Atticus Finch. In the story, Atticus Finch agrees to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. It is a phenomenal literary work.
One critic states it this way: “To Kill a Mockingbird is both a young girl’s coming-of-age story and a darker drama about the roots and consequences of racism and prejudice, probing how good and evil can coexist within a single community or individual.”1
In one part of the story, a rabid dog menaces Finch’s neighborhood. Besides being a dedicated attorney, Finch is also the best shot in the county. The town sheriff wants Finch to shoot the dog, because he is a better shot than the sheriff. Methodically, but dramatically, even breaking his glasses in the effort, Finch raises the sheriff’s weapon, fires and ends the threat of the rabid dog. One quick, clean shot saves the neighborhood.
The racism that pervades the whole town is not as easy to defeat. That sin has seeped into every corner of the town. As Finch explains to his son after the jury has convicted the innocent man, “There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads — they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.”
No one single shot could take out racism. That racism, that sin, that thing that makes us lose our heads, is pervasive and stubborn.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, however, to bring justice and work towards God’s promised day when as Dr. King said people would be measured by “the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”
This weekend the LaFayette community will be taking a step towards dealing with the past in an honest way while also looking to a better, more just future as we dedicate a memorial to the victim of a lynching that took place in Walker County.
In the fall of 1916 in Walker County, a twenty-four-year-old coal miner named Henry White was lynched. He was black and was accused of raping the daughter of a local justice of the peace. She was white. Without evidence or due process, a mob convened to hang him. It is reported that the sheriff was in the crowd and watched as Henry White was murdered.
It has taken 104 years, but Henry White will be remembered, through the work of the Walker County Remembrance Coalition, whose formation was spearheaded by a local resident Emma Jones. Miss Jones learned of this shameful part of Walker County’s history while studying at Furman University. She worked initially with our own Dr. David Boyle and then Mrs. Beverly Foster to gather the support needed to install a footstone remembering Henry White in the Presbyterian Peace Park adjacent to the church, and a full replica of the memorial you can find at the Equal Justice Initiatives Memorial Park in Montgomery, Alabama. This replica is being installed at the Marsh House, which is a most appropriate location. Once Marsh House tours resume, visitors (especially students on school field trips) will have the opportunity to learn about and grapple with this dark time in American History. Beyond placing the memorial marker, the Task Force is engaging in numerous education initiatives to further the cause of justice and reconciliation among all people in our area.
I am certainly not naive enough to believe that these markers or the education surrounding them will solve racism in Walker County or the city of LaFayette. What I do hope is that they will be a small step towards healing and reconciliation. I also believe that this act points to our belief that, as Paul writes in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
More importantly, I believe it points to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who gave us the following instruction: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Friends as we see this marker, may we all remember the times that folks in our world choose hate and fear over Love and Peace. And may we too remember the times that we too have let sin dictate our thoughts, words, and actions. And may we each seek not simply to vow to avoid these sinful ways, but, as the Walker County Remembrance Coalition’s Motto proclaims, may we also seek opportunities to promote Love, Peace, Justice, Remembrance and Reconciliation.
Laura Fine, Ph.D.