I am writing this on Rosa Parks’ birthday, and my mind has been filled with the “impact of the reluctant,” in particular people from Alabama who nearly against their will managed to profoundly affect our nation, our culture, and our history. Rosa set in motion a movement, not so much because on that afternoon 60 years ago, she got on that particular bus in Montgomery with the intention of making a statement or changing history. Rather, her tired feet motivated her to simply and quietly say, “No” to a law and a man that at the very least were ungentlemanly.
Helen Keller became famous by living what could be termed as an “extraordinarily normal life” in an era when the expected course of action for her parents would have been to put her in an “asylum.”
Jesse Owens ran, Hank Williams sang, Charles Barkley shot hoop, W.C. Handy invented the Blues, and Satchell Paige played baseball, all of them, essentially due to the fact that it was just plain “in ‘em.” For all intents and purposes, they could have done no other.
However, hands down, my favorite “reluctant heroine” from the State of Alabama is Nelle Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize winner of my favorite secular book, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” published in 1960.
Nelle Harper Lee was the last person to expect to publish just one book that became a monster hit, an instant American classic, an Oscar-winning film only a year later, has never been out of print, and has sold more than 30,000,000 copies. She has been the recipient of innumerable awards and honorary degrees. Most ceremonies she has chosen not to attend, one exception being the ceremony where President George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November of 2007. While she certainly did the yeoman’s job of staying out of the spotlight, sweetly refusing to be interviewed, and avoiding the speaker’s circuit, she has always been friendly and warm to the townfolk of Monroeville, AL, where she still lives.
Monroeville is the site of an annual Mockingbird Festival, and folks can tour the Courthouse where her father unsuccessfully defended a black man and his son accused of murdering a white shopkeeper. Both men were hanged, essentially during the time of the Scottsboro Boys case, and A.C. Lee was so broken by the outcome that he never took on another criminal case. He was Harper’s inspiration for the character of Atticus Finch, the man voted the all time greatest movie hero by the film industry. Legendary author Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), was Harper’s childhood friend, and the Mockingbird character of Dill was drawn from his friendship with Harper. Of course, Harper was Scout Finch, and sadly, we all thought we would never hear from her again.
However, New York publishing house Harper Collins has just announced that it is going to publish Lee’s long lost 2nd novel, which was actually written before “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and it is entitled, “Go Set A Watchman.” It is due to come out in July, and the initial printing will be 2 million copies.
Watchman tells of Scout’s return as a grown woman to the fictitious Maycomb, AL, in 1955, right as the effects of Rosa Park’s tired feet and heart were being felt. The great irony in all this is that the original was found somehow attached to one of the old manuscripts of Mockingbird in a box described as being in a “secure location,” and Nelle Harper Lee had long since considered it lost for good.
While it took 2 ½ years of revisions to polish Mockingbird before it was deemed ready to be published, Watchman apparently became both vintage as well as perfect by virtue of being hidden away in a box somewhere for 60 years. To have a book published without revisions is essentially unheard of.
Nelle Harper Lee more than likely is reluctantly poised to make history again, and as she faces her ‘90s with an uncomfortable new wave of renown, may her willingness to speak truth to power without thought of fame or fortune serve to make all of us even prouder to be from the same great State as she.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner