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As an African American growing up in Greenwood, Miss., before civil rights, Ruth Roman Lynch lived the pain of racism on a daily basis.
"My grandfather and I were coming home once from the white side of the tracks," says Lynch, 57, now a business consultant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "We went into a restaurant and my grandfather asked if I could use the bathroom, and they said, 'We don't serve n***ers here.' "
So when, in the seventh grade, she first read To Kill a Mockingbird — which hit bookstores 50 years ago this week — Lynch was overcome with sadness and pain at the familiar treachery. But part of the book's remarkable achievement is that at the same time, it also offered Lynch a vision of a brighter, less hate-filled world.
"This book had a profound effect, because it proved that all Caucasians were not demons," she says. "It helped alleviate some of the fear, because it proved there was hope — that there were Caucasians with a heart."
In telling the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer battling institutionalized racism in the Deep South, the betrayed innocence of his children, Jem and Scout, their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, and the death of justice in the face of bias and hate, Alabama native Harper Lee created one of the most cherished novels of our time.
Lee's genius is evident in the effect her book had on both sides of America's racial divide.
"To Kill a Mockingbird has enshrined for generations an ideal of American decency and conduct," according to former first lady Laura Bush. "It was a dream of a lifetime for a librarian and book lover like me to meet Harper Lee when she came to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Her book is a model of good writing and humane sensibility, the kind of classic literature that has defined our nation and brings together Americans from all different backgrounds by expressing our shared ideals."
As a convent school student in New York in the early 1960s, actress Tina Sloan, who is white, recalls a very blond, blue-eyed student body, with maybe two black students in the entire school.
"In those days, you really didn't have a friend who was black," says Sloan, who starred for 26 years on the soap opera Guiding Light. "You weren't averse to it; it just wasn't happening.”
Gathering with her classmates to read To Kill a Mockingbird was a revelation, as it was their first exposure to a higher set of ideals about America's attitude toward race.
"We'd talk about it long into the night," she says. "It opened our minds to prejudices we didn't know we had — prejudices that were so deep-seated we didn't even recognize them — and to how we could overcome them. This book turned us on to the fact that we could champion other people."
"I thought [Lee] was a visionary. The book told us of the problems to come," says actress Anna Strasberg, whose friend Andrew Goodman was murdered, along with two associates, in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan, one week after Strasberg performed with him in a play in New York. (The murders were the basis for the film Mississippi Burning.)
"[This book is about] the purity of the human spirit — how we have to trust people more," says Strasberg. "We've come a long way [on race], but not long enough. We need to keep working at it, and I think this book will help."
"This was one of the most effective and profound [portrayals of] what racism really looked like," adds Lynch. "I believe it spearheaded some relief, and allowed both races to relax a bit."
Delving even deeper, though, the book's brilliance is not simply in its forward-thinking approach to race. The reason Mockingbird is regarded as a classic is that it is so rich in sympathetic and truthful characters, textured details of time and place, and fully realized examples of the deep well of human experience, that readers who have felt a decades-long devotion to it have often done so for completely different reasons.
Actress Marsha Mason, who owns a first-edition copy of the book and considers it "a constant reminder of who we are as human beings," was mesmerized by the writing style, the characterizations and the portrayal of the lives of outsiders.
"I was drawn in by the emotional life of the characters, and the eccentricity," says Mason. "I used to think about what Boo's life would be like, and how people are misunderstood and made fun of."
Best-selling author David Baldacci notes how, given its many layers, To Kill a Mockingbird is the rare book that grows with you.
"As you become older, you read things into the book that you wouldn't have gotten when you were 15," he says. "You go back and read it again, and you get more out of it when you're 40 and 50."
Baldacci, who calls Mockingbird "the Huck Finn of its generation," was first taken with it as a sophomore in high school, feeling a kinship with Scout and Jem, and viewing the book as "this great, grand adventure for kids."
But by the time he entered the legal profession —- Baldacci spent 10 years as a trial lawyer — Atticus Finch had become a touchstone for young lawyers like himself as they discovered the limits of their idealism.
"At some point in our lives, every lawyer wanted to be Atticus, and then realized that in the real world, it probably wasn't a viable option," he says. "But we can try. We can try each day to be Atticus Finch."
That sense of optimism is the root of the book's timelessness. Looking back from an era in which young readers are more commonly captivated by fantasy, a la Harry Potter or Twilight, Lee created a relatable, real world tale of simple pleasures and brutal horrors, and despite the worst of it, left readers with the sense that we have the power to lead society in the right direction.
“To Kill a Mockingbird is a cornerstone of right and wrong, and gives us hope that we can do better," says Baldacci. "We can be more human, more humane, and fairer than we are right now, and Mockingbird is a source of all that. It gives you everything you want, in 300 or so pages, about what you need to live your life."
"This book is quite amazing," adds Strasberg. "It really represents a lot of what is good in America."