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'Mockingbird' Sparks Controversy
The 41-Year-Old Novel Triggers Renewed Racial Debates

Start streaming audioListen to Melissa Block's report for All Things Considered.

Paperback cover of To Kill a Mockingbird
Paperback cover of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was recently added to Chicago Public Library's reading program
Photo: Warner Books

August 7, 2001 -- To Kill a Mockingbird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a southern lawyer's effort to defend a wrongly-accused African-American man in 1930s Alabama. This 41-year-old book is now considered to be a classic, but it has prompted controversy as well as praise since its first publication in 1960 because of its use of racially derogatory language.

This week, the novel is again in the spotlight following the Chicago Public Library's decision to add the book to its "One Book, One Chicago" citywide reading program. Mary Dempsey, commissioner for the library, says she hopes the decision will stimulate discussions across cultural, class and racial lines.

But not everyone wants to embrace such an approach. In fact, the day Chicago Public Library made its decision, Muskogee High School in Oklahoma announced that it is removing Mockingbird from its freshmen's required reading list.

Mary Dempsey, commissioner for Chicago Public Library
Mary Dempsey hopes the book's selection will start discussions across cultural, class and racial lines.
Photo: Chicago Public Library

Muriel Saunders, a member of the Muskogee School Board, defends the new policy, saying it is designed to protect the feelings of students who have complained that the use of the word "nigger" in the book makes them feel uncomfortable.

The ban at Muskogee High is far from being the first one for this controversial novel. In 1972, for example, a school system in Indianapolis also dropped the book from its reading list because it was seen as potentially offensive to African-American students.

On All Things Considered, Chicago Public Library's Mary Dempsey and Muskogee School Board member Muriel Saunders speak to Melissa Block and express their views on this renewed controversy.

Web Resources:

Visit the Web site of Chicago Public Library and learn more about its "One Book, One Chicago" reading program.

Read Chicago Tribune's review of To Kill a Mockingbird, originally published on July 17, 1960.