You have been in this courtroom before. If you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, you stood here. You felt the sweltering heat in the pews when Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson. You huddled with Jem and Scout on the balcony and saw their father loosen his tie and speak quiet, honest words to a jury as the town—and in a way, the world—stood watching.
You were there—we were all there—when the verdict came in.
Standing on this gumwood floor, looking into that jury box, it’s hard not to be awestruck. This room, re-created so faithfully in the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck, helped inspire the novel that got the South talking about fairness at a time when it was essential that we do so.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published 50 years ago as of July 2010, and Monroeville, Alabama, is throwing an anniversary celebration July 8-11. They’ll give tours of the historic downtown, stage a marathon reading, and auction off a signed copy. They’ll do it all cautiously out of respect for (and maybe a little fear of) the town’s most famous resident: Nelle Harper Lee.
Author of a book that has sold more than 30 million copies, won a Pulitzer Prize, and inspired a classic movie, Nelle (if you call her Harper, it means you don’t know her) is famously unhappy about being famous. She rejects requests for interviews, sometimes with a terse “Hell, no” scribbled on the letter requesting one. Charles J. Shields, author of the 2006 biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, had to cobble together his book without a word from her. Now 84, she’s as determined as she ever was to let the book speak for itself.
In Monroeville, a small town 100 miles southwest of Montgomery, those who talk out of school about Nelle risk a kind of excommunication. She isn’t fond of gossips. Folks know her, might wave to her at lunch at the country club, or at church. Mostly, they know to let her be.
It was a bit of an event when, not long ago, Nelle and her sister, Miss Alice, came into the Mockingbird Grill for lunch. Waitress Kenya Perez had often seen the Lee sisters at the park, feeding unpopped popcorn to the ducks. Kenya timidly approached the table and asked Nelle to autograph her book. Nelle graciously signed and went back to her meal.
“I was nervous because we know she don’t like to be noticed,” Kenya said. “But she was nice.”