A Little Girl Dispels a Lynch Mob

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Robert Duvall as Arthur "Boo" Radley with Mary Badham as Mary Louise "Scout" Finch and Philip Alford as Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch
Robert Duvall as Arthur "Boo" Radley with Mary Badham as Mary Louise "Scout" Finch and Philip Alford as Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch

I watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” the other night. What a great book and what a great movie. Gregory Peck, what can you say? One of the greatest actors in the history of cinema, playing one of the greatest characters in the history of literature. But Mary Badham is magnificent too as Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.

I love the way the drama plays out viewed from the eyes of the children.

I had forgotten the way Scout singlehandedly dispels the lynch mob that has gathered around the jail. The sheriff is gone, and only Atticus Finch, unarmed, is between them and their prey. Scout and her brother Jem  (Jeremy Atticus Finch, played by Philip Alford) have disobeyed their father and are standing beside him.

“Hiya Mister Cunningham!” Scout says to one of the men. “Tell Walter I said, ‘Hey!’” Whether it’s because his son has been friends with the Finch children or because he now knows he’ll be recognized, Cunningham tells the other men to go home. This scene illustrates Harper Lee’s genius, neatly and dramatically summing up the power of humanity, in the person of a little girl.

Robert Duval as Arthur "Boo" Radley
Robert Duval as Arthur "Boo" Radley

And who could ever forget Robert Duval’s screen debut as Arthur “Boo” Radley, plunging a kitchen knife into the black heart of Bob Ewell, who sent an innocent man to his death to cover his own guilt and who attacked two little children.

And how do we view this epic struggle? Through the eyehole of a ham costume. Perfect! Lee’s genius again. Vladimir Nabokov wrote a very interesting essay about William Faulkner’s use of point of view, which is also brilliant, of course, but Lee, here, does him one better. An epic struggle between good, in the person of Boo Radley, and evil, in the person of Bob Ewell, viewed through the eyehole of a ham costume.

But like Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind), she won the Pulitzer Prize and the book was a bestseller (academics really hate that!) so the book has never gained its rightful place in literature. It moved too many readers and inspired one of the greatest movies of all time!

I watched the movie with great interest, well knowing the plot, but taking in the details of Scout’s world, which is very like the world of my friend Walter Emmett Perry. His grandfather and namesake, after serving as a prosecuting officer at the Nuremburg Trials, prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for castrating an innocent man, a black man, naturally.

He won convictions, amazingly enough, but the men were all pardoned by Alabama Governor George Wallace. But Perry kept going, and ultimately, he won.

This week I got a long letter in longhand from his grandson, who is currently incarcerated at the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility in Ogdensburg, NY.  Walter’s in the slammer for befriending some ungrateful preppy frat boys, and ultimately we hope they’ll get their due, but in the meantime he is bearing himself like the true philosopher he is and helping other inmates with their education.

He helps them write to all their baby mamas telling them not to visit, so they don’t have more than one baby mama show up at the same time, after a 12-hour bus ride from Brooklyn. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Walter says he had some trouble learning to write longhand again. It’s hard! I tried! He worked on this letter for weeks, and I’m honored. He has some far-seeing ideas for improving our correctional system, and like his grandfather, he has a lot of grit. I expect great things.

In the meantime, I have made a contribution, in honor of Walter Emmett Perry, to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that has actually bankrupted the Klan with their lawsuits. They still need your help. They’re still targeted by a lot of violent groups.