It's a relic from America's past: poor, lonely Mayella Ewell, illiterate and abused by her father, invents a chore to lure a handsome black man into her house, with tragic results for him. That's To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1962 movie honored by our first black president last week for its fictional protagonist, a small-town lawyer who stands for justice by defending a hopeless case.
In the story's setting of 1935 Alabama, even the most contemptible white person held a social rank above a "respectable Negro" like Tom Robinson. The day Mayella kisses Tom, as he later testifies in court, "She says she never kissed a grown man before an' she might as well kiss a n-----. She says what her papa do to her don't count." (This was cleaned up a bit in the movie.) She orders him, "Kiss me back," as if it were just another chore.
The all-white-male juries of the Depression-era South were never going to take a black man's side against any white person's; but crafty Atticus Finch, defending Tom against a false rape charge, exposed Bob Ewell (Mayella's father) before all of Maycomb. Ewell sought revenge by attacking Finch's children.
By 1962, the nation had seen lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Riders and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black Americans were rejecting segregated balconies like the one Jem and Scout Finch scandalously sat in with the colored folk for Tom Robinson's trial. They were not bowled over by the children's discovery, in Harper Lee's novel, that their maid, Calpurnia, had a life and family of her own.
Gregory Peck as Atticus powerfully embodied white America's conscience; but African-Americans were less and less interested in playing supporting roles in their own story. Eight years earlier, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had won Brown v. Board of Education in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fifty years after Mockingbird's release, President Obama screened the film in the White House and introduced it for USA Network at a time when the Trayvon Martin case has brought home the truth of the NAACP motto, "Much has changed, much has not." A recent film about the segregated South, The Help, still has the obligatory white intermediary, but she plays a supporting role to the black protagonists.
In the political sphere, the guardians of privilege grow increasingly desperate as they deal in homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny to hold back the tide of diversity. When the National Organization for Marriage tries to drive a wedge between gays and people of color, it is met by new alliances of progressive faith leaders and pro-gay initiatives from the NAACP. A coalition of LGBT groups issues a joint statement demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.
Black voices are increasingly indispensable in the mainstream media, and the power of new media for grassroots organizing is vividly seen in the Martin case. These new voices are not being deflected by diversionary references to old Al Sharpton controversies or the latest provocation by former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.
White supremacists are whistling past the graveyard. Already, as The National Journal reported in 2011, four states – Hawaii, New Mexico, California and Texas – are majority minority.
New generations of advocates, entrepreneurs and artists have stepped up. Black gay filmmakers such as Dee Rees with Pariah and Patrik-Ian Polk with The Skinny are "taking America back," to use a racially loaded tea party slogan, by telling stories of their own.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of an iconic American film, it is perhaps time to point out to the last-ditch defenders of racial privilege that the colored folk have left the balcony – unless we are talking about the Truman Balcony. That's the one in the White House.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.