Posts Tagged ‘required reading’

Road trip: Monroeville

Friday, July 16th, 2010

After reporting on the 50th Anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird last week, fellow VISTA Will Thomas and I decided to take a road trip down to Monroeville to check out some of Friday night’s festivities.

We pulled into town at around 5 pm to find a pretty typical small town scene. Much of main street had closed up at 4 pm.  Even the courthouse museum’s exhibits on To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee were closed. (Below – Monroeville Historic Courthouse Museum. Photo via Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Turns out most tourists were at a film screening, and the rest of the town and shop owners adhere strictly to traditional schedules – so much so, in fact, that many businesses still close up at noon on Thursday, though nobody could tell us why.  After a little research, we figured out that this practice is a holdover from antebellum days, when everyone got off work early to go to the slave market in Mobile on Thursday afternoon.

We killed time by exploring the deserted town square before meandering over to the historic Hybart House (above and below – photos via where the evening’s festivities included a small garden party featuring Little Savannah’s home cooking and the weekend’s signature cocktail, Tequila Mockingbird.

Many of the people we met lived in Monroeville or nearby communities. The weather was pleasant, the company was welcoming, and the food was delicious. The menu, themed around “To Kill a Mockingbird,” included fried chicken, turnip greens, heirloom tomatoes, ham and cornbread!

Our dinner companions chatted with us about their lives, their families, and Monroeville. Only one was a Monroe native, and had returned to after many years’ absence. Two of them had moved to Monroeville to follow friends or family working in the timber industry; as one explained it, “Everyone in this town is here because of timber.” The fourth was visiting from Mobile.

Of course we talked about To Kill A Mockingbird: the book, the play, the movie, and the mysterious author. Many of them see her around town, but wouldn’t divulge too much gossip.

We also talked about an article Dr. Wayne Flynt wrote for a Monroeville publication, Don’t Shoot Flawed ‘Mockingbird’.  (It also ran in last Sunday’s Birmingham News.)  Between this article and the conversation I had with him last week, Dr. Flynt helped me understand the book as a treatise on empathy and decency. It encourages us to ignore fear and prejudice, and to walk in another’s shoes before judging them. And it addresses not only racial prejudice, but social stigma and the class differences that divide us.

Still from the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird showing Bob and Mayella Ewell.

Many characters in the book are repugnant, and yet despite some extreme character flaws, they are humanized. The same rectitude that leads Atticus Finch to defend Tom Robinson causes him to view even extremely hateful or unlikable people as human beings. He gets beyond fear and dislike of those who are different and tries to see things from their point of view.

I still noticed some defensiveness in Monroeville about the book’s depiction of race relations. A tour guide insisted that such a rape trial had never occurred in Monroeville, even though a similar trial did occur when Harper Lee was 10 years old and Arthur Lett was falsely accused and convicted of rape. And the crowd at the anniversary dinner we attended was overwhelmingly white.

Yet the people of Monroeville still celebrate the book today precisely because it had such a huge impact on social attitudes when it was published. Many people warned me the overtly racist language and subject matter of the play (performed every March) was disturbing, but they felt it was important to remember the uncomfortable truths about their past.

To Kill a Mockingbird is both a nostalgic look back at childhood and a recognition of flawed justice, and when people gather to talk about it, they remember it for both of these reasons.

For more views of Monroeville, check out this CBS Sunday morning story.

Posted by Robyn Hyden

What we’re reading: Broke USA

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Can you believe that any lender would charge 400 percent interest for a loan? Who would pay that – and why? These questions came to mind after I attended a Payday Lending Reform Coalition Meeting last month.

To learn more about what author Gary Rivlin calls “the $33 billion a year poverty industry,” I picked up his book Broke USA – From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc: How the Working Poor Became Big Business.

The author describes a perfect storm in which stagnant wages and rising living expenses make payday loans deceptively convenient. Rivlin spoke about his book on the NPR program Fresh Air last month. Listen to the full interview here. One excerpt:

On why payday loan operations exist in poorer neighborhoods:

“[Payday loan operations] are there because banks have fled certain neighborhoods — it’s working-class neighborhoods, inner-city neighborhoods, some rural neighborhoods. Where can you get your loan? You go to a payday lender, you go to a consumer finance shop [or] you go to a pawnbroker. To me, the real reason payday has grown like it has is more of an economic reason than a geographic reason. There’s been stagnating wages among the lowest 40 percent [of wage earners] in this country, and so they’re not earning anymore real dollars. At the same time, rent is going up, health care is going up [and] other expenses are going up, and it just becomes harder and harder and harder for these people who are making $20,000 [or] $25,000 [or] $30,000 a year to make ends meet. And the pay lenders are really convenient. Between going home from work and going shopping, you can stop at one of these stores and get instant cash in five minutes.”

Posted by Robyn Hyden

Celebrating 50 years of To Kill A Mockingbird

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

We couldn’t let this milestone pass without comment. The 50th Anniversary Celebration of To Kill A Mockingbird kicks off today in Monroeville with a viewing of the 1963 film, continues Friday and Saturday with a marathon reading of the book (among other things) and concludes Sunday afternoon with a huge party to commemorate the book’s publication date.

Visitors to the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville’s Old Courthouse Museum

We couldn’t think of anyone better to ask about this book’s impact than noted historian Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn University and co-founder of the Alabama Poverty Project. Flynt, who has been called the conscience of Alabama, told me that the book influenced the course of his entire career. In the early 1960s, discouraged by racism and prejudice in Alabama’s white churches, Flynt had given up hope of ever living or serving as a minister in the state and moved away. When he read To Kill A Mockingbird in the wake of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, he realized that if a white woman from Monroeville could write such a novel about tolerance and empathy, there was hope for the state yet.

After earning his PhD from Florida State University, he returned home and wrote the definitive modern history of our state, Alabama in the Twentieth Century.  Dr. Flynt breaks down the dynamics of race, class, religion, and poverty as only he can. That’s right: we have Harper Lee’s novel to thank for Wayne Flynt’s work in Alabama – work that includes our own founding in 1993.

Flynt observes:

By almost any measurement, To Kill A Mockingbird is the most important novel ever authored by a native Alabamian. The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel spent 88 weeks on bestseller lists, and by the 35th anniversary of its publication in 1995 had sold 30 million copies. It continues to sell almost a million copies a year and is often ranked among the top 40 best-sellers listed in the newspaper USA Today. The themes and issues raised in the novel remain relevant, and thus To Kill A Mockingbird will likely hold its place in public discourse on tolerance, justice, and humanity.

Popular acclaim for the novel owes much to the message of tolerance that Lee proclaimed during an intolerant age. Atticus’s admonition to his children that they will never understand a person until they consider life from his or her point of view is viewed as trite by some critics, but the novel’s message had profound effects for Jews in Prague, homosexuals in Berlin, and gypsies in eastern Europe who had been the victims of Nazi oppression. It was no less relevant to the displaced whites from Arkansas and Oklahoma who trekked to California as migrant laborers during the 1930s, or to Appalachian whites who migrated to auto industry jobs in Michigan during the 1940s and 1950s.

To Kill A Mockingbird has played a significant role in the intense half-century debate Americans have had about the role of education in fostering moral values. Should public schools teach values? If so, what values? Whose values? Hundreds of thousands of American teachers have chosen to teach To Kill A Mockingbird, deciding that Harper Lee’s values represent the best of humanity: tolerance; kindness; civility; justice; the courage to face down community or family when they are wrong; and the compassion to love them despite their flaws. Despite these qualities, the novel is one of the books most frequently banned by local school boards because of the plot (which involves an alleged rape) and the theme (tolerance for people who do not conform to community norms). When the book first appeared, Alabama’s White Citizens Council called the work “communistic” for promoting racial integration and tried to have the state director of the Alabama Public Library Service fired for refusing to remove it from state libraries.

Ironically, a novel written by a woman from Monroeville in Alabama’s Black Belt has become the primary literary instrument worldwide for teaching values of racial justice, tolerance for people different from ourselves, and the need for moral courage in the face of community prejudice and ostracism.

-excerpted from Dr. Flynt’s Encyclopedia of Alabama entry on To Kill A Mockingbird

Wayne Flynt currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Alabama and serves on APP’s Board of Directors.

Posted by Robyn Hyden

A chicken-and-egg conundrum?

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

The Alabama Select Commission on High School Graduation and Student Dropouts recently made recommendations to reduce our high school drop out rate, which currently stands at over 40 percent.   Those recommendations included:

  • tracking students at-risk for dropping out
  • creating a positive, pro-learning climate that reflects multiple learning styles
  • establishing recovery academies for dropouts who would like to complete their education
  • changing disciplinary measures to encourage positive behavior, not dropping out

Why does the drop out rate matter? Well, as the Montgomery Advertiser editorial board noted,

The fiscal cost of such a high dropout rate is staggering – billions of dollars in lost income potential over the lifetimes of dropouts, with corresponding losses in tax revenue. But more importantly the human cost is incalculable, a terrible toll in stunted human potential, in lives far less productive and satisfying than they might have been.

Larry Lee’s Daily Yonder Piece, “Two Counties and the Difference Education Makes,” has an interesting take on this issue, particularly its impact on rural Alabama.  As Larry points out, there is a chicken-and-egg conundrum: if rural students get a high school diploma, they are more likely to go off to college, move away and find a job elsewhere – a rural brain drain. Yet if students are undereducated, the county is less able to attract economic development. And what incentive do students have to pursue higher education if there are no jobs for them?

We frequently write about how Alabama’s low educational attainment hinders economic development, as shown in this Southern Education Foundation report “High School Dropouts: Alabama’s Number One Education and Economic Problem,” or this National Report Card on Higher Education, which states,

Alabama’s underperformance in educating its young population could limit the state’s access to a competitive workforce and weaken its economy over time…[these trends] undermine the state’s ability to compete successfully in a global economy.

Alabama needs jobs. And to attract employers, Alabama needs higher levels of college graduation. But first and foremost, we have to fix our high school dropout epidemic.

How can you help? The best way to make an impact – and something that many of us already do – is to mentor a child or young adult. Reach out to students in your community, your church, and your neighborhood. Provide encouragement and support. Mentoring doesn’t need to be formal, although you can connect with an at-risk child through programs such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Mentoring is a small thing that goes a long way towards helping our schools and our teachers support Alabama’s students.

For more insight into the high school dropout crisis nationwide and its economic impact, see this excellent post from Compassion in Politics. For more resources on mentoring, visit our resource page.

Posted by Robyn Hyden

What we’re reading: The Legacy of a Cotton Culture

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Larry Lee is the director of the Center for Rural Alabama and a good friend to APP.  He can always be counted on to give me feedback on our APP newsletter, and I appreciate his honesty.

That honesty is readily apparent in his must-read account of Alabama’s economic development history, The Legacy of a Cotton Culture.  He has a great deal of insight into why Alabama has the second greatest job loss in the country.

During the first half of the 1900s, Alabama tried to join the “New South” by looking at New England and chanting, “Cheap labor, cheap land, low taxes.”  And for awhile, we were awash in cotton and garment industry jobs.  But those days are gone.

In 1949 the good citizens of Andalusia thought the factory whistle would blow until Gabriel blew his horn.  But it fell silent 20 years ago.  Today across Alabama, buildings where workers once breathed cotton dust and risked arms and hands, stand empty only to be visited by the occasional school boy hurling rocks to break out another window.  And low-slung buildings where sewing machines once whirred watch as kudzu creeps across empty parking lots.

Today there are 23 counties where unemployment is 14 percent or higher.  All are rural.

They had 19,000 textile jobs in 1950 and 334,300 acres of cotton.

For decades, the future was no farther than getting to the end of the next cotton row or putting the mule in the barn as sun set.  The children of sharecroppers were far more likely to hear the rasp of a cotton pick sack being dragged on sandy soil than the ringing of a school bell.

This is the first part of a three-part series.  I can’t wait to read the next installment.

Posted by Kristina Scott