To Kill A Mockingbird Was Based On A Similar Case Her Father Had Defended
The sister of the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. died on Monday. Who was this extraordinary woman and why am I blogging about her?
Alice Lee was a a trailblazing Alabama lawyer who was one of the only women to practice law in the state during the first half of the 20th century. She later became the oldest person still practicing law in Alabama in 2012 and didn’t retire until she turned 100.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which was originally entitled Atticus, took Harper Lee several years to write, and was published in 1960. It has now sold more than 30 million copies, been translated into over 40 languages, and is required reading in many schools.
Atticus Finch Was Based on Their Father
To Kill a Mockingbird recounts the brave actions of the highly principled lawyer Atticus Finch, who is appointed to represent a black defendant accused of raping a young white woman in racist Alabama during the Depression. Despite flimsy evidence, the all-white, all-male jury easily convicts Tom Robinson, who is later shot by an angry mob as he tries to escape from prison.
This heroic character is based in part upon Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who represented two black men accused of killing a white store clerk in a nearby town when Harper Lee was 10 years old Mr. Lee fought for his clients in a celebrated case but, like Atticus Finch, lost and his clients were given the death penalty.
The equally memorable 1962 film adaptation was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, including the distinguished Gregory Peck’s only best actor award. A noted civil rights advocate, he said this was his favorite role and noted that
I put everything I had into it – all my feelings and everything I’d learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. And my feelings about racial justice and inequality and opportunity.
Atticus was an extraordinary figure filled with compassion, intelligence, courage and integrity. Here is his famous closing argument from his brilliant but impossible to win case:
Impact of the Book and Movie
Generations of attorneys – including me – consider Atticus Finch a role model.The beloved character represents everything a lawyer should strive to be: ethical, zealous. diligent, and fair.
Atticus taught us about bravery, about fighting for our clients, and about doing the right thing. As he told his children (presumably Harper and Alice Lee in real life):
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
The book is one of 100 Books that Shaped Work in America published by the U.S. Department of Labor. It was added to the list by the Secretary of Labor, Thomas E. Perez, who observed that many leading lawyers and judges, including the civil rights advocate Morris Dees, author Scott Turor, and the Oklahoma federal court judge who presided over the Timothy McVeigh trial were deeply influenced by the book.
Alice Lee’s Influence Over Harper Lee And The Novel
Despite the spectacular reception of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee remained a mystery, granting few interviews and publishing no other novels. Alice Lee became her sister’s voice and her attorney who protected her sister when predators tried to take advantage of her declining health to earn profits from her novel and reputation.
When asked about her secret to longevity in a 2011 interview, Alice explained: “A good life to me is one that has been happy, one that has been productive. Things I have done have been good for other people. I’ve tried to be a good citizen in my community.”
Alice Lee’s life was truly inspirational, just like her fictional father. May she rest in peace.