"To Kill a Mockingbird" Turns 50

Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"
Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a novel treasured by several generations of readers. Many of those fans are in the town that inspired the story this weekend, drawn there by a landmark anniversary. "Evening News" anchor Katie Couric reports:

Looking for a little summer reading? How about a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that's sold over 30 million copies worldwide, spawned a motion picture worthy of three Academy Awards and bested the Bible as the most inspirational book of all time?

"I remember starting it and just devouring it," said Oprah Winfrey. "This was one of the first books I wanted to encourage other people to read."

It may be turning 50, but "To Kill a Mockingbird" has been called a timeless classic - and for a generation of readers, their favorite book.

It's also mine.

"Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

You could almost feel the steamy summer heat of Maycomb, Ala., the fictitious Depression Era, deeply-segregated Southern town disrupted by an explosive charge that a black man raped a white woman … an accusation town lawyer Atticus Finch knows is false.

But this multi-layered morality tale is seen from a child's point of view - Finch's six-year-old daughter, Scout, played in the 1962 movie by Mary Badham.

"I felt so attached to her," Badham said. "I just wish I could've been as smart as Scout and always been there with the comeback. But, oh well!"

Badham was on hand for the ultimate book club this weekend in Monroeville, Ala., the town Maycomb was modeled after. It's hosting a four-day, 50th anniversary celebration, complete with a marathon "Mockingbird" reading; tours of the town; and samplings of Monroeville's signature drink (a tequila mockingbird).

But while the "Mockingbird" faithful have flocked here to soak up Monroeville's Southern charm, noticeably absent from the festivities is the town's most famous resident - the novel's 84-year-old author, Harper Lee.

"It called to mind, for me, that whole scene where Sheriff Tate says to Atticus, 'You can't go shine a light on these people when they don't want it,'" said independent film and former CBS News producer Mary McDonagh Murphy.

For her documentary and book about "Mockingbird," Murphy interviewed almost everyone - everyone but Harper Lee.

"I began to see that the story wasn't Harper Lee - the story is the novel," said Murphy. "The story is the impact the novel had."

Lee won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Two years later, the late Gregory Peck won the Oscar for Best Actor playing Atticus Finch.

And "To Kill a Mockingbird" is required reading in schools across the country . . . a book, teachers say, students actually like to read!

But perhaps Harper Lee's greatest triumph is her searing portrayal of the ugliness of racism and injustice.

James McBride, author of "The Color of Water," says that was a courageous act.

"What other writer during that time was willing to take on this subject with the kind of honesty and integrity that she did? What other white writer?" he asked.

With such overwhelming success, Lee (whom her friends and family call "Nelle") decided a follow up was futile, according to her older sister, Alice (who's 98 and still practicing law).

"She said she couldn't top what she's done," remarked Alice Finch Lee. "She said, 'I haven't anywhere to go but down.'"

In fact, the intensely private Lee hasn't given a single interview since 1964.

"She said that reporters began to take too many liberties with what she said," said Alice Finch Lee, "so she just wanted out. She felt like she'd given enough."

Folks here in Monroeville seem to understand.

On this sultry summer weekend, her words - published 50 years ago today - are enough.

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