TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday Harper Lee's famous novel about racial injustice in the South, "To Kill a Mockingbird," still holds lessons for authorities who seek to fight terrorism while preserving the rights of innocent Muslims.
Speaking at the University of Alabama for a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Lee's only published book, Holder described how Lee's novel illustrates that a system can "grind innocent people into the ground," something he said was important to remember in dealing with innocent Muslim citizens in the United States.
While many people recall the heroism of Lee's fictional hero, attorney Atticus Finch, in defending a black man wrongly accused of rape, Holder said they often forget that Finch's client was still convicted and, ultimately, killed.
"It's a book about injustice, a cautionary tale, but at the same time it's a book about courage," said Holder, speaking in a crowded lecture hall in the law school.
Later, answering questions, Holder defended President Barack Obama's decision to ban torture in the fight against terrorists.
"I do not think that in making that determination President Obama has weakened us in the least in our ability to be effective in that war," Holder said.
Lee, who is from the south Alabama town of Monroeville, wasn't at the ceremony. She attended law school at Alabama in the 1940s and never published another novel after "To Kill a Mockingbird" came out in 1960. It was turned into a movie starring Gregory Peck as Finch.
Describing Obama's commitment to civil rights enforcement, Holder said the Justice Department has asserted itself in the protection of disabled people, workers, students and religious groups and has prosecuted civil rights-era slayings across the South.
"As we have seen in recent decades — and, unfortunately, in recent days — the world has not yet run its course of intolerance and bigotry. Injustice remains. Divisions and disparities remain. Bias- and hate-fueled violence persists," Holder said.
"Although life may, in some ways, feel easier today than ever before, and although the doors of opportunity may be open wider than they were 50 years ago, the truth is that there is nothing easy about 2010," said Holder. His wife, Sharon Malone, is the sister of the late Vivian Malone Jones, one of the first black students to integrate the University of Alabama.
To commemorate the publication of "Mockingbird," the university is establishing the Harper Lee Prize of Legal Literature for fictional books that show the positive effects attorneys can have on society. Dean Kenneth Randall said Lee's book set the tone for generations of lawyers.
"She helped to redefine the scope of the legal profession," Randall said.
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