Order in the Court: “To Kill a Mockingbird and the Imagined Civil Rights Movement”

by Jenifer Abercrombie

How did Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington D.C. end plastered on a bus stop? How did a political revolution become a shopping holiday? Dr. Peter Kuryla, associate professor of history at Belmont University, began his seminar “Civil Rights Demonstrations Amid Courtroom Melodramas: To Kill a Mockingbird and the Imagined Civil Rights Movement,” with just those questions.

Dr. Kuryla began his lecture by showing the scholars how “the civil rights movement [has become] a part of our everyday lives.” Besides what is taught in history classrooms, people can now commemorate the fight for civil rights with Little Rock High School Mugs or Rosa Parks Cookie Jars. Dr. Kuryla asserted that these objects are indicators of people’s opinion about civil rights. The moment you can see a political movement for sale,” he said, “you know people have embraced it.”

Rosa Parks cookie jar
Rosa Parks cookie jar

But how did this happen? How did a radical social and political move for equality become “not so controversial anymore?” Dr. Kurlya started with an explanation of what made it controversial in the first place. “Has anyone seen the movie Selma?” he asked. As a few hands went up across the room, Dr. Kuryla explained that the film was one of the first to display the civil rights movement from the activists’ point of view. What made the civil rights movement so polarizing and difficult for people, he explained, was the violence, like that depicted in the movie, that people began seeing on their televisions. While most activists promoted peace, the response to their protests were often exactly the opposite, and as Dr. Kuryla said, the public began to wonder, “what kind of America is this?”

Selma March 7, 1965
Selma, Alabama –  March 7, 1965

What made the demonstrations of civil rights activists so powerful, Dr. Kuryla argued, was the fact that the demonstrations like those in Selma or Anniston “put white violence against black people on display.” This influx of unnerving images of disorder, violence, and chaos prompted Americans to respond in a strange way: their media consumption. To showcase an example Dr. Kuryla turned to ABC’s television schedule on Bloody Sunday in 1965. While Selma, Alabama was erupting in violence, ABC was preparing to show the night’s scheduled film, Judgement at Nuremburg, a courtroom drama centered around the trials of Nazi war criminals. During the film, breaking news interrupted the fictional drama with footage from the streets of of the Selma march. This moment of spliced film strips cemented the connection in people’s minds; what made the Nazi criminals any different from Alabama law enforcement?

Scene from Judgement at Nuremberg
Scene from Judgement at Nuremberg

And which was easier to watch? Marlena Dietrich and Montgomery Clift playing the scripted justice of a courtroom or real Americans divided and viciously beating their countrymen on the pavement? Enter To Kill a Mockingbird. This book, which now tops high school reading lists, was released in 1960 and adapted to film in 1962. In the midst of real turmoil, Americans were turning in droves to fiction for order and understanding. To demonstrate the influence of courtroom fiction, Dr. Kuryla showed the scholars the trial scene from the To Kill A Mockingbird film. Afterwards he asked the Scholars to analyze the characters and reveal the message that depicts “Black people [as] largely defenseless and innocent,” and their savior as a “white, middle class, liberal, educated man.” In reality, Dr. Kuryla argued, the civil rights movement was much less orderly and the roles much less defined. In the midst of the real civil rights movement there were less white lawyers defending equality, and more black activists in the streets, doing the movement themselves.

Scene from To Kill a Mockingbird
Scene from To Kill a Mockingbird

But according to Dr. Kuryla the courtroom drama dynamic that populated so much literature and film at the time of the civil rights movement is exactly what has altered its collective memory. Dr. Kuryla presented the scholars with research showing that Americans consumed more courtroom drama during the time of the civil rights movement than any other time in history. But why the love for court? He asserted that the order of courtroom fiction became most appealing during a time of upheaval, when both laws and ideas were being challenged, when violence seemed to reign over justice. He also noted that as the logic of the courtroom has been mapped onto our understanding of that time period, the movement has slowly lost its controversial nature and eventually slipped into commercialism.

In a world where education and public opinion remember Harper Lee more often than Emmett Till and the judge’s bench over the Selma streets, Dr. Kuryla challenged the scholars to take a new look at history and think about how and what we consume in order to resist turning a political revolution into a cheap souvenir.

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