Harper Lee photographed with a young Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (c) Leo Fuchs

by Jamal Stone

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has become a rite of passage for middle- and high-school students for its sensitive approach to mature topics such as racism, rape, and murder. But in 1966 some parents found its subject matter “immoral.”

At least that was the reason given when Virginia’s Hanover School Board, then embroiled in the nationwide debate about school segregation, elected to remove the classic and any other books not approved by the board from school shelves. In a curious case of support from unlikely sources, the “book banning” drew sharp criticism from the Richmond News Leader, one of the country’s most influential pro-segregationist newspapers.

The News Leader‘s chief editorial writer, James J. Kilpatrick, quickly denounced the move to take Mockingbird out of schools. He defended the novel in an editorial: “[To Kill a Mockingbird] is the tender and moving story of a rape trial in Alabama, and of a white lawyer’s effort to obtain justice for a Negro client. A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined.”

The morality that Kilpatrick found in the novel, however, did not affect the News Leader‘s fierce and regressive racial politics. Before he gained national prominence as a conservative voice on 60 Minutes, Kilpatrick routinely advocated for “massive resistance” against school integration, going so far as to publicly debate Martin Luther King Jr. on the issue. And Kilpatrick’s defense of segregation wasn’t purely anti-federal. In an article penned for the Saturday Evening Post, Kilpatrick argued that the racial inferiority of blacks was a matter of fact. The article was never printed—the Post removed it from the run-list after a church bombing in Alabama left four black schoolgirls dead.

But Kilpatrick was a staunch critic of government intervention, and in response to Hanover’s removal of Mockingbird, promptly unveiled the Beadle Bumble Fund (named after the Dickens character) to redress “the stupidities of public officials.” By the end of its first week, the fund had supplied more than 50 Hanover school children with copies of Lee’s book.

Harper Lee, famously reclusive even then, wrote a letter to the paper’s editor regarding the Hanover controversy. Her response was to the point, though with her tongue planted firmly in cheek.

She wrote, “To hear that the novel is immoral has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.” (Orwell’s novel, too, had been nixed by the Hanover School Board.) Lee enclosed a $10 donation to Kilpatrick’s fund.

The News Leader published her letter with an addendum, perhaps from Kilpatrick himself. “In most controversies,” the editorial board wrote, “the lady is expected to have the last word. In this particular discussion, it seems especially fitting that the last word should come from the lady who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. With Miss Lee’s letter, we call a halt to the publication of letters commenting on the book-banning in Hanover County.”

One month and hundreds of written complaints later, the Hanover School Board finally recanted, claiming that they never meant to specifically ban a book. The Board’s chairman admitted that “the school board or the superintendent of schools has not the time, nor are we competent to judge the books.” Well said.

Here’s the full text of Harper Lee’s letter to the News Leader:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

Harper Lee

Monroeville, Ala.