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In 1966, Hanover schools stirred Harper Lee's ire after banning 'Mockingbird'

In 1966, Hanover schools stirred Harper Lee's ire after banning 'Mockingbird'

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Harper Lee 1963

This March 14, 1963 file photo shows Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To kill a Mockingbird." 

Almost every U.S. high school student, it seems, has read “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about a white Southern lawyer fighting for justice for a black client hasn’t always been welcome in the classroom.

According to the American Library Association, the book has been challenged or removed from libraries numerous times since its publication over complaints about its racial themes and use of profanity.

In January 1966, the Hanover County School Board banned “To Kill a Mockingbird” after unanimously voting to remove all books not on the State Board of Education’s list approved for state subsidy. The decision came after a board member called the book, which wasn’t on the list, “immoral literature.”

The Hanover board’s decision sparked a flurry of letters to the editor in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Richmond News Leader.

Among those writing to the papers about the ban was Lee, who sent a scathing missive about the decision 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,” she wrote.

“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.”

Lee included $10 for The News Leader’s Bumble Fund, which distributed 50 free copies of the book to Hanover students. The fund, named after a character in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” who proclaimed “the law is a ass,” was started in 1959 by News Leader Editor James J. Kilpatrick “to redress ludicrous cases of patent injustice.”

In an editorial, Kilpatrick railed against not just Hanover’s decision to ban “To Kill a Mockingbird” but also the State Board of Education’s failure to include the novel on its list of approved books.

“The Hanover School Board exhibited the kind of small-bore stupidity that deserves to be roundly condemned; but the Hanover board was merely following the larger stupidity of the State Board of Education,” he wrote. “Off and on in recent years, we have detected encouraging signs that Virginia was emerging from the peckerwood provincialism and ingrown ‘morality’ that H.L. Mencken, in a famous phrase, attributed to this Sahara of the Bozart.

“But if this dim-witted committee of the State Board of Education is fairly representative of the wisdom that prevails in high levels of State educational policy, Mencken’s old indictment stands reconfirmed today.”

A month after the vote to ban the book, members of the Hanover School Board backtracked on their decision and said they had not attempted to ban any specific book.

All of today’s Forum is given over to the beautiful controversy that has blown up since the Hanover County School Board voted unanimously last Tuesday night to ban Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. | (804) 649-6741| Twitter: @bryandevasher


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