Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson makes To Kill a Mockingbird Relevant Again

One of the charges of the high school English teacher is to help teenagers see the relevancy of literature to their lives. I’m always on the lookout on how to win over the students to read, in their minds, very old books from long, long ago.

For example, with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that focuses on racism against African Americans in 1930s Alabama, it can be a challenging task to involve Glendale adolescents who reside in a community with only 1.3% black citizens as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.   How do you get them to understand that there are people living today who dealt with segregation, blacks and whites with separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, and schools?

That’s why in a strange way, the killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, with a 67.4% African American population, can have a salutary effect on making the issue of racism relevant today in the here and now, not just vague stories from a history book.

When I was in grade school, World War Two ended only 20 years earlier, yet it might as well have taken place in the 1920’s for all I fathomed.   Only until I grew older did I realize how close my lifespan was to that major event.

So when I’m teaching Mockingbird and providing the background to the 1960 novel, namely the Civil Rights movement, I’m aware that for the average 15-year-old I might as well be talking about the Civil War.

In the past I’ve exposed students to the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old from Chicago who while visiting his great-uncle in Money, Mississippi was killed in the middle of the night for reportedly whistling at a white woman, thinking that at least the fact that they have already outlived Till would raise an eyebrow.  

We make connections from real life to the novel.   It took less than an hour for the all-white jury to declare the defendants accused of Till’s murder not guilty, similar to Mockingbird’s all-white jury who took a few hours to reach the guilty verdict of rape against innocent Tom Robinson. In both cases, justice was not served.

We’ve listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” inspired by the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo who was shot 19 times by NYPD officers for reaching for his wallet (the police shot 41 bullets but over 20 missed). Likewise in Mockingbird, Robinson is shot 17 times when he tries to escape from jail.

The 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida made the book relevant again.   Even though the vast majority of my students are not African-American, here was a kid about their age with a bag of Skittles.

When I asked students to research what was happening in Ferguson, suggesting various newspaper and television websites, several came back excitedly reporting eyewitness videos they viewed on YouTube. One, in particular, showed a protester being carted off like a pig on a spit eerily reminiscent of black and white footage from the 1960s, another connection.

As we study Mockingbird this year, it may not be possible to know for sure how many students will connect with the 54-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner as a result of Ms. Lee’s brilliant prose or Michael Brown’s tragic death.  

All that is known is that what happened in Ferguson should never have happened in 2014, and hope that it leaves a lasting impression on today’s young people who will inherit this society from us very soon.