Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Interstate 10 connects Alabama to Hollywood. It crosses through Harper Lee’s beloved state along the southern coast in Mobile. If you take the exit for I-165 and head northeast for about 90 miles, you’ll arrive in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville. Last year, I made the drive on a blazing hot Friday in early May. I checked into the Mockingbird Inn, a two-story motel whose only affiliation with its namesake was a gray bird on its blue sign. Then I drove into town.
I parked my white rental sedan in Monroeville’s central square, four long rows of low-slung buildings set at perpendicular angles around a wide expanse of green. Rising out of the lawn was the Old Monroe County Courthouse, red-brick with a round facade and cupola-topped tower. I looked up in awe, aware that I was taking my place among a decades-long stream of literary pilgrims, here to see the place that inspired the book that inspired the movie that inspired the country.
Mockingbird, you may remember, follows young white Scout Finch as she grows up in a Depression-era town called Maycomb, a fictional stand-in for Monroeville. Scout’s lawyer father, Atticus, is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape. He loses the case, and Tom is ultimately killed. But the book isn’t about Tom. It’s about Scout, who sees in her father the same thing I once saw: somebody to look up to.
I first read the book in middle school, then again in college, and several more times in my twenties. Twice, I taught it to high school students in Chicago. I often wore a sky-blue “Atticus Finch is my co-pilot” t-shirt. One day, I knew, I wanted to have a puppy named Atticus. And a child named Harper.
It wasn’t just me. Both “Harper” and “Atticus” crossed into the top one thousand most popular US baby names back in 2004 and have remained there ever since. Atticus, for a boy, has spent the last seven years in the top 500. Harper, for a girl, has spent two of the last four years in the top 10.
And it wasn’t just millennials who loved the book. Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold tens of millions of copies. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus the #1 movie hero of all time, beating out Indiana Jones and James Bond.
But his untouchable status was threatened in 2015, when—after a half-century of public silence from Harper Lee—a second novel about Scout and Atticus was published. Written before Mockingbird but set two decades later, Go Set a Watchman follows their relationship in the wake of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In the book’s most famous scene, a grown-up Scout—who now goes by her full name, Jean Louise—returns to the balcony of the courthouse from which she once famously watched her father defend Tom Robinson. But this time, she sees him taking part in a meeting of the racist White Citizens’ Council.
The book’s release was as controversial as its content. The manuscript, which was turned down by Lee’s publisher back in the 1950s and never edited, was found in a local bank vault by Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s lawyer. Many suspected Carter of orchestrating its publication against the will of her aging client. (Lee died less than a year later, at the age of 89. Allegations against Carter have never been proven, and a state investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing.)
The old book weathered the new book’s storm. Last year, PBS viewers named Mockingbird “America’s #1 best-loved novel.” It led the pack throughout the entire five-month voting period, and topped the list in forty-eight out of fifty states. (North Carolina went for Outlander, Wyoming for Lord of the Rings). To Kill a Mockingbird could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and it wouldn’t lose voters. But it lost me.
I was first assigned the book and shown the movie in eighth grade—not in my English class, but in Civics. In college, I was required to read it again for a class called Law, Politics, and Public Policy. Twice, then, in classes about American citizenship, I was explicitly taught to look at the world through the adoring eyes of a fictional white child—and, implicitly, to overlook the racism that was baked into Atticus. It wasn’t until Watchman that I began to wake up (and, reluctantly, stop wearing my Atticus t-shirt). But I couldn’t get him off my mind. And so I found myself in Monroeville.
The old courthouse no longer serves its original purpose. It’s now a museum with exhibits about Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote (the inspiration for Scout’s friend Dill in Mockingbird). These displays, while charming, are beside the point. Like so many places in Lee’s hometown, the museum has become a monument to Mockingbird itself. Monroeville, like America, would rather celebrate a fictional past than reckon with the real thing.
Every year, from Easter to Memorial Day, the museum hosts a community theater staging of To Kill a Mockingbird. The big draw is the second act. It takes place in the famous courtroom: the same one where Lee’s father practiced law, the same one that was recreated for the 1962 movie, and the same one that is now being constructed and deconstructed seven times a week at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway. I was here to see the show.
Check-in was under a temporary lawn canopy. A few women stood behind a folding table, signing in guests and providing them with programs for the evening’s performance. I was stunned to see that one of them was Tonja Carter, wearing a navy dress with white polka dots.
Carter’s role in the evening’s production was, true to form, complicated. She had recently caused a local controversy by taking control of the show, which used to be produced by the museum. At the same time, she was in the midst of a high-profile months-long legal fight with mega-producer Scott Rudin over the upcoming Broadway adaptation. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, when I introduced myself as a journalist, Carter gave me the same tight smile and brush-off she’s clearly been giving reporters for years now.
I was early enough to take a seat in the front row of a sea of folding chairs on the lawn behind the old courthouse. After a bright welcome from Carter herself, the show began.
Before facades representing the homes of Boo Radley, the Finch family, and their neighbors, the actors performed as dusk fell. Young Scout and Jem played with Dill in their yard; Atticus shot a rabid dog; Scout turned away a lynch mob that had come to kill the innocent Tom Robinson.
At the end of the first act, Sheriff Tate called out the names of the twelve white male audience members who were to “serve on the jury” in the Robinson trial. (I’d known this was one of the show’s traditions, and asked to be included when I checked in.) As we stood and faced the crowd, I noticed that almost all of the audience members were also white, mostly middle-aged and older.
The audience filed out as we awaited instructions. A couple of the jurors’ wives slowed their pace just enough to lean in and say things like, “keep an open mind.”
Once we were alone, the group veered between small talk and silence.
“Twelve angry men!” quipped a juror.
“That’s a whole other story.”
After a few minutes, Sheriff Tate reappeared and gave us our instructions: When the second act began, we were to enter the courtroom single file, fill the back of the jury box and then the front, listen closely during the trial, and not say anything at all. Then, when it was time to deliberate, we’d be marched back out. Then back in again for the verdict.
“Like a good Alabama sheriff,” he assured us, “I’m gonna tell you what the verdict is.”
There we were, twelve white men in 2018, sitting in the jury box beneath the stage lights, silently embodying a miscarriage of justice. The actress playing Mayella Ewell, the young white woman whose false accusation masked her own trauma, writhed in her seat. The prosecutor ranted at Tom Robinson, calling him “boy” with disdain. Tom, one arm in a sling, looked on despondently, resigned to his fate.
Atticus gave his closing argument and we were marched out of the room for “deliberation.” A door next to the on-stage judge’s platform led us to a hallway and through another door that opened onto what might have once been the real-life judge’s chambers.
Tom Robinson sat quietly in a corner, clad in overalls, waiting to be led back onstage for the verdict. The rest of us filed into chairs that had been arranged in a circle around the room.
“That was very moving,” one of the jurors said, to no one in particular. “It’s sad that people used to think that way.”
When we were called back in to read the pre-determined verdict, I felt myself wanting to speak up, to be a savior and change the outcome. But I’d been assigned a small part in a big story, and complicity was the only way forward. Tom was found guilty and led away.
The Finch children, watching from the “colored balcony,” were shocked and saddened. They came down and met their father at the head of the long center aisle. “They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again,” said Atticus. “And when they do it—seems that only children weep.”
This was weird, because throughout the play, an African-American gospel choir had served as a sort of nameless Greek chorus. They floated in and out during the first act, and looked on from the balcony during the second, a poorly-lit and anonymous afterthought in a production that pointedly wasn’t about them. But they did weep at the verdict. So did a couple of the women playing the town’s white ladies down on the first floor. Atticus was actually one of the few cast members who wasn’t weeping.
He stood center stage, holding the three mourning children, as the choir, on cue, sang “Let My People Go,” their suffering transmuted into a balm for me and my wounded white heart.
After the show, I headed across the lawn and then the street to the Prop & Gavel, Tonja Carter’s restaurant.
The Prop & Gavel was one of the only open non-fast-food places in town. Located right next to Carter’s law offices, it was massive inside, with exposed brick walls, weathered wooden tables and chairs, and a propeller hanging above the bar. The theme was a dual nod to the courthouse and to Carter’s late husband, who died in a plane crash shortly after the publication of Watchman. A photo of Harper Lee hung behind the bar, signed “Tonja: Much love! Harper Lee.” A smaller frame held the cryptic message: “Cheers to all my haters! Be patient. So much more is coming.”
I recognized one of my fellow jurors, a red-faced man in a Harley-Davidson hat, sitting at the bar. I introduced myself as a journalist and we started talking. He was in his forties, with a reddish complexion and a left arm partially sleeved in tattoos. He said he’d first seen the film version of Mockingbird just a week prior. He’d loved it.
It reminded him of a simpler time. Even though he had grown up decades after the setting of the film, he could relate to it. When he was a kid, he said, you could play outside until late, then come home when you heard your mother’s whistle. You locked your doors at night, but you didn’t really need to. You could say the N-word—which he did, in the course of explaining this—and it was no big deal.
For example, his grandparents had known a couple of guys named Robert. One was a black man who worked for them sometimes. To distinguish, they simply called him “n–r Robert,” he said, using the full word again, and it was fine. Robert didn’t mind at all. The twin fictions of Mockingbird and Robert’s assent blended together in a haze of aw-shucks decency.
The wife of the man in the Harley cap, who had immigrated to the US from Trinidad and Tobago, joined us. They started talking about which characters in the play they liked the best. He liked the woman who’d played, well, he couldn’t remember her name, but—his wife glared at him as he clarified—he liked “the house n–r.” (He meant Calpurnia.)
As I explored Monroeville, I came upon landmarks—the building where Atticus had his office, the old county jail where Tom was held, the spot of land where Scout’s house once stood—and had to remind myself repeatedly that the book was fiction. These real-life counterparts to its set pieces were actually A.C. Lee’s law offices, the old county jail where real people were caged, and the spot of land where Harper Lee’s house once stood. They were somehow less vivid than what I’d hoped for, and my instinct was to imbue them with the spirit of their fictional doppelgängers.
I felt the same confusion as I sat in the empty courtroom’s balcony one afternoon, having found what I thought was the approximate spot from which Scout had watched the trial in the original Mockingbird. I looked down on the courtroom and felt at once a joyful nostalgia—this is where it happened; a sense of betrayal—this is not where it happened, because it didn’t happen; and shame—what could I possibly hope to find here?
Adding to my sense of disorientation were the actual monuments that had been placed around the courthouse. A wall on one corner of the square featured a mural depicting the book’s child characters hiding behind a tree, peering in towards the center of town. Sitting on a bench on the courthouse lawn, a life-size, cast-iron Scout read To Kill a Mockingbird while Jem and Dill looked on. (Which didn’t even make sense.) Nearby was a bronze plaque known as the Atticus Finch Monument, erected by the Alabama State Bar Association. It described Atticus as “a lawyer-hero who knows how to see and to tell the truth, knowing the price the community, which Atticus loves, will pay for that truth.” It was unclear to which community, and which cost, the plaque referred.
In kindergarten, I learned to recite a cute couplet—in fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue—which served to erase a genocide. In sixth grade, my teacher taught me that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery. These myths, and countless others like them, had been erected all around me. They were shield and ammunition. An infrastructure of innocence. And their falseness had not made them less potent, but more.
On Saturday evening I was back on the lawn again, checking in for a second viewing of the play, this time as a non-juror. Carter was there again, and had warmed up a bit. She noticed my notebook, one of several I had not-so-discreetly labeled “The Atticus Project” as I’d crisscrossed the country reporting on Mockingbird.
“Are you writing an exposé of Atticus Finch?” she asked.
Fumbling for an answer, I told her I was working on a project about how our cultural perceptions of Atticus have and have not changed since Watchman.
“One [book] is through the eyes of a six-year-old, the other is through the eyes of a 30-year-old,” Carter replied. “It’s the same man, though. I remember when I realized my father couldn’t put the wing back on the bird and make it fly. It was devastating.”
In Watchman, Jean Louise laments to her father, “I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again.” I, too, had learned the inevitable end-of-childhood lesson that my parents were only human. But for me, as for so many others, Atticus had always seemed like something more. Not because he’d claimed to be, but because we—white folks—needed him. For all the white presidents and protagonists who dominate the American canon, there are relatively few heroes. And heroes are how we learn who to be.
“We don’t mess with Santa Claus or Atticus Finch in this country,” Carter said.
It was an insight as incisive as any I’ve heard over two years researching and talking to people about Mockingbird. And it was coming from the woman so many Harper Lee fans had vilified, and still do. Whatever Tonja Carter’s misdeeds—or lack thereof—in relation to her famous client, they were not the reasons why the broader culture was so eager to punish her. She was being punished for telling white America that our hero couldn’t put the wing back on the bird and make it fly.
The next morning, I made the hundred-mile drive northeast to Montgomery, Alabama. I had an extra day before my Monday morning flight home, so I’d decided to visit the Legacy Museum, which had just opened its doors a week before. The museum is a project of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit founded by the lawyer Bryan Stevenson.
Stevenson’s bestselling book about his work on behalf of the wrongfully-convicted, Just Mercy, was on sale in the museum’s gift shop. It follows his successful defense of a wrongfully-convicted black man in, of all places, Monroeville. Even though Stevenson is real, and won his case, and Atticus is not real, and lost his, the comparison is irresistible, at least from a publisher’s perspective. “Bryan Stevenson,” says the book’s back cover, “is a real-life, modern-day Atticus Finch.” The front cover promises Just Mercy is “every bit as moving as To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The Legacy Museum plays a brilliant trick: It is designed and laid out with all the accoutrements one might expect from a history museum. There are sculptures and interactive exhibits and short films to watch while sitting on long benches, and beautiful photography along the walls. It smells nice. It feels sleek and clean. Entrance times are staggered to ensure it’s never too crowded. But the point is not to make visitors comfortable or put them at ease. It is to enable them to fully comprehend the museum’s work, which includes the dismantling of white America’s infrastructure of innocence.
Picture, for a moment, this infrastructure. The sprawling solidity of the South’s network of Confederate monuments; of Washington, D.C.’s Jefferson Memorial; of Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. The piles of eagle-laden history textbooks in desks and classroom closets in Montana and Michigan and Mississippi. The movies, from Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book. And To Kill a Mockingbird, which—like Interstate 10—was built in the 1950’s, and has stretched across the country ever since, lulling us into complacency. The Legacy Museum is a single stick of dynamite beneath all of this.
The work begins immediately inside the entrance, where a sign tells visitors, “The land you stand on is the ancestral land of the Creek Indians…who were violently forced from their homes by white European settlers in the 1800s.” And: “You are standing on a site where enslaved people were warehoused.”
Throughout the museum, every word, every image, every detail is an expert piece of evidence adding up to a bulletproof argument: from slavery straight through to our current era of mass incarceration, this country has been built on white violence and control. Accordingly, the museum’s central room is divided into four time periods: KIDNAPPED. TERRORIZED. SEGREGATED. INCARCERATED.
It took me about fifteen minutes to walk to the museum’s sister site, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. About halfway there, I came upon a historical marker indicating the street corner where Rosa Parks had refused to move to the back of the bus. Just up the road, I’d later discover, was Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. A few blocks further was his home. In between the two was the White House of the Confederacy.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice rests on a pristine six acres. Near the entrance, a life-sized sculpture by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo depicts an enslaved family in chains being torn apart. When I was there, visitors—families with children, couples, individual travelers, speakers of different languages, people of various ages and races and ethnicities—walked the grounds solemnly, reading placards about the history of white supremacist violence in America.
I walked along a path that scaled a gentle hill to the memorial itself. In front of me was the first of 800 rust-colored corten steel monuments. Each was individually engraved with the name of a state and county in which one or more racial terror lynchings had taken place. The name of each victim was displayed below the name of the county, along with the date of their death.
This was a cemetery with no remains. What amounted to gravestones hung from the roof, floating before me, about my height and width. The only way through was to weave around them, as if in a crowded room.
As I made my way to end of the first side of the memorial’s square, I turned right, and the ground below me began sloping downward. The monuments stayed in place, still suspended from the ceiling, so that as I descended, they seemed to rise. These were no longer gravestones. They were like bodies, hanging above. It got harder and harder to make out the details of the monuments. What was clearer was their horrific volume. Along the walls, individual stories appeared. Like this one: “Jack Turner was lynched in Butler, Alabama, in 1882 for organizing black voters in Choctaw County.”
I exited the square and with some distance, I looked back. I was now just far enough away that I was able to notice something I hadn’t been able to see while I was inside: the 800 hanging remembrances now resembled rows of bars. The memorial looks like a prison.
I came upon duplicates of each and every one of the monuments I’d just seen. 800 identical copies, this time lying in rows, like caskets.
The reason they exist in duplicate is EJI’s Monument Placement Initiative. Stevenson’s organization is extending an open invitation to all 800 counties to come and claim them, on the condition that they install them permanently on their own soil. It is a direct challenge to all the places where the terror occurred: Come here and absorb this history. Take this monument home and have a reckoning.
In a recent essay in Bitter Southerner, Monroeville native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Cynthia Tucker writes of her hope that Monroe County will claim its monument—and, by extension, responsibility for the 17 deaths it memorializes. Perhaps, Tucker writes, they could hang the pillar outside the courthouse: it “would not offer the same tone of optimism, but it would hold forth a compelling truth.”
The next morning, in Monroeville, I packed for the airport and checked out of the Mockingbird Inn. On my way out of town, I made a detour and drove to the cemetery of the First United Methodist Church. Even here, even still, among the gentle slopes and well-kept headstones, the town seemed like a sort of funhouse-mirror version of Maycomb—the novel’s fictional counterpart, rather than the reverse. Names from Mockingbird—TATE, DEAS, FINCH—dotted the landscape.
The bodies of their real-life owners rested somewhere below. These were the dead who’d been granted the dignity of a proper burial, not the dead who are waiting for their county to decide whether to acknowledge their brutal passing.
Harper Lee was buried next to her father. There was, of course, no grave for Atticus.