After a screening the other night of “Our Mockingbird,” a new documentary about the hold Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has on us still, 50 years on, a woman in the audience had a question for the filmmaker. Which she posed with much the same tact and reserve that Mockingbird’s Scout used on her classmate Walter when she demanded to know “what in the Sam Hill” he was doing pouring syrup all over his supper.
How oh how, the woman asked Birmingham-born Sandra Jaffe, could Alabamans abide the current-day segregation on display in the movie, which shows students from all-white Mountain Brook High School and all-black Fairfield High School blown away by the experience of collaborating on a production of “To Kill a Mockingbird?”
I wanted to ask that woman in the audience a question: Madam, have you been to America? Where many public schools are still mostly white, or mostly black and brown?
Fifty years ago this week, Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, and tried to keep two young black students from entering the University of Alabama.
It’s been nearly 60 years, too, since Brown v. the Board of Education outlawed segregation. Demographics have changed so much since then that for the first time ever, whites who are not Hispanic recorded more deaths than births last year. Yet even now — and even without Wallace standing there, blocking people and progress — an outrageous number of public schools remain monochromatic.
About one in four white public school students attends a racially isolated school, as does one in five black students. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 27 percent of all white public school students attended a school that was at least 90 percent white in 2010, down from 49 percent in 1995. Eighteen percent of black public school students attended a school at least 90 percent black that year, down from 22 percent in ’95, while 17 percent of Hispanic students were in an overwhelmingly Hispanic school, up from 15 percent in 1995.
And though we may think we no longer need to engineer experiences that bring kids of different races together, “Our Mockingbird” strongly suggests otherwise.
In the ’06-’07 school year, Pat Yates, the longtime drama teacher at Mountain Brook, where filmmaker Jaffe went to high school, conspired with Fairfield’s longtime music director, Patsy Howze, to work together on a show. Not just any show, but the one based on what the writer Diane McWhorter, who also grew up in Birmingham, describes in “Our Mockingbird” as “the book about the original sin” of slavery in this country.
Though Mountain Brook and Fairfield are only 16 miles apart, when the students first meet, we see how very far they’ll have to travel. If, that is, they’re to make good on what Yates tells them they are without fail going to do: “We are going — out of respect to Harper Lee – we’re going to put on a good show.”
No one in either group has spent much time around what one student calls “the opposite race.” But they do know ‘Mockingbird,’ which tells the story of the feared, misunderstood Boo Radley and of doomed Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly convicted of raping a white woman, despite the efforts of his lawyer (and Scout’s daddy) Atticus Finch. The week the movie premiered in their hometown of Birmingham was also the week Bull Connor turned the police dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protesters, including children. “Before you go on,” Yates tells her actors just before curtain, “I want you to think of all the Boo Radleys and Tom Robinsons.”
One of the most powerful moments of “Our Mockingbird” shows a clip of Atticus, played by Gregory Peck, sitting vigil in front of the jail, trying to protect Robinson. That scene “captures the utter loneliness of righteousness,” McWhorter says. It’s Scout, of course, who turns back the lynch mob with her innocence: “Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” she says to the group’s leader. “Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter.”
Over and over, “Our Mockingbird,” makes the point that black men have always had to fear being wrongly accused of raping white women. “It’s like I’m really Tom Robinson when I’m on that stage,” the boy who plays him says in the documentary. “I pray that never happens to me.”
There’s no flick at the reality that just as black men have often been wrongly accused, and still are, well, so, too, have women who were telling the truth about rape been disbelieved. And still are.
When I ask Jaffe about that, she observes that there are any number of arguments about why we shouldn’t read “Mockingbird,” any more, “from the n-word to the marginalization of the black characters to Mayella Ewell,” who accuses Robinson after he rejects her.
Yet I hope we never get that correct, and every one of those who was in the play says he or she was profoundly changed by it, and by the collaboration. “I’d been around caucasians here or there,” Stephanie Porterfield, now 24, told me in a phone interview, “but now I can talk to anybody,” and does, in her job as a case manager for older Alabamans.
One small moment that was big for her, she said, came when, right before Thanksgiving, “we started talking about cranberry sauce versus cranberry salad.” At some point, it dawned on her that though “sometimes they eat this stuff they call cranberry salad,” more to the point was that “we all just want to spend time with our families over the holidays.” That students from both schools make such a big deal of the lesson that “people are people” shows how much we need more “Mockingbird” collaborations.
Gena Casey, now a fifth-grade teacher in a diverse school in Duncanville, Alabama, says, “I had never had any interactions with black people before, and it was almost a relief to know people outside the little kingdom I lived in” didn’t have to be either feared or tiptoed around. “I cringe when I think about it now, but I almost felt like I was going to do mission work. And a lot of us, without wanting to admit it, were scared, not only to be on the other side of town, but to meet people that some in our community avoid.”
Casey, who volunteered that “my grandfather actually worked for Bull Connor,” Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety in the 1960s who used firehoses and attack dogs on civil rights protesters, said the biggest thing she walked away with was the ability and determination to talk about race — something she has her students do regularly.
“We’re not very far from our history,” she says, and talking about that “is the only way it’s going to get better.” Just glance at those stats on racially isolated suburban and rural schools across the country, and you’ll see why that’s not only true in Alabama.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors ‘She the People.’ Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.