Don’t be discouraged by small steps taken forward

Last week, as a record heat wave scalded New Jersey and most of the nation, I sat on the back deck drinking sun tea in tall glasses with lots of ice and reading Harper Lee’s classic American novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

July was the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel, and I had been intrigued by the news coverage of the observance of that milestone in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala. Notably absent from the observance was Lee herself, who does not give interviews these days and is seldom seen in public.

She also never wrote another book after her first, saying that after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and helped change the way we think about race in this country, the only way to go was down.

Before last week, I’m ashamed to admit I’d never read the book. That’s a shocking admission for a book person like me, but to tell the truth, in some part of my mind I thought I’d read it. At least the story was familiar to me, but that’s likely because I just saw the movie at an impressionable age (my mother later confessed that I was named after Gregory Peck, on whom she had a crush).

But when I started thinking about it, I realized I’d never actually read the book. And when I made that admission to my wife, it was one of the few times in our long marriage that I’ve actually seen her speechless.

“You’re kidding me,” she said.

And then she hopped in her car, drove to the bookstore and brought a copy home for me to read. Which I did. On a couple of hot afternoons in July, which put me in the right physical frame of mind.

At the risk of sounding like a kid giving a book report about his summer reading, I can say it has stood the test of time. The language is fresh and clear, and the truths are universal, which is the hallmark of great literature.

But at first, I was disappointed in the outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial. Robinson, as you may remember, was the black man accused of raping a white woman and was on trial for his life in front of an all-white, all-male jury.

I’m used to modern fiction, where the good guys usually win conclusively after a dramatic and satisfying denouement, and my heart sank when the polled jury unanimously pronounced him guilty, one by one.

But in spite of that guilty verdict, the outcomewas a victory, as Atticus Finch explained later. The very fact that in Robinson’s case, an all-white, all-male jury in rural Alabama in the 1930s had even considered that a black defendant might be innocent of such a heinous crime was a step forward, although a small one. Atticus knew, you see, that the journey toward true racial equality in this country would be a long one, and there would be lots of stumbling along the way. But a case like Tom Robinson’s, even if the verdict wasn’t an outright acquittal, was a step forward in the journey.

In the fullness of time, we can see that he was right. In the 50 years since the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we have made huge strides in crossing the divide of race in our great nation, one small step at a time. And with the election of our first African-American president, I think some of us believed we were nearing the end of the journey.

But as the professional lynching of Shirley Sherrod — by many in the media, the NAACP and the Obama administration — showed us, we still have a long way to go.

In spite of the anger and outrage this shameful incident engendered, we might be wise to emulate Atticus’ equanimity and try to see this as just another step forward.

It just depends on what we’ve learned, where we go from here, and how we react in the future.

We must be patient. Be humane. Be rational. Try to understand where those on the other side are coming from. We must not get bogged down by anger and frustration. Keep moving forward. Keep our eyes on the goal. Enjoy the small victories, but see them for what they are — small victories in a long and grueling battle.

I think that is an important perspective for anyone involved in a long struggle. I know it is for me. As many of my readers know, my family is involved in a different sort of struggle, with the aid and support of many fine peoplewho share our beliefs. And we’ve even had some recent victories, but we must constantly work to see them for what they are.

Small steps forward in a long campaign.

On some level, I think there was an almost cosmic reason I read Harper Lee’s fine novel only last week. It found me when I needed it.

If you haven’t read it yet, but best advice I can give you today is to do it now — before this heat wave is over. And if you read it years ago, read it again. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Just make sure you’ve got plenty of sun tea.

• • •

I know this is late, but the beautiful, 16- foot-7-inch Victorian clock at the intersection of Main and Washington in Milltown was unveiled and dedicated July 2.

Folks out of the area can read all about it by searching the East Brunswick Sentinel’s archives on the Web, so I won’t go into all of that here.

But I do want to say congratulations to the Milltown Revitalization Committee, an allvolunteer organization that conceived the idea and raised $46,000 to pay for the gorgeous (and so far accurate) clock.

Kudos all around. And thanks from all of us who drive through Milltown on a regular basis (trying to avoid the speed traps).

• • •

It’s no surprise, but my column of last week concerning cops talking on cell phones produced a lot of reader feedback, which is still coming in. I’ll share some of it soon when folks have finished having their say.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at