Atticus Finch and Benjamin Hooks

On a beautiful autumn morning in 2007, a small but important pageant of American history unfolded in the East Room of the White House. The occasion was a ceremony, hosted by President George W. Bush, to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a small group of distinguished Americans: Brian Lamb of C-Span was one, as was the ailing Henry Hyde, represented by his son Bob. Another was Harper Lee, the Alabama-born writer whose To Kill a Mockingbird gave the whites of the Jim Crow South an object lesson in how they might at least begin to atone for the sins of segregation.

"Forty-six years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, To Kill a Mockingbird still touches and inspires every reader," President Bush said. "We're moved by the story of a man falsely accused with old prejudices against him and an old sense of honor that rises to his defense. We learned that courage can be a solitary business. As the lawyer Atticus Finch tells his daughter, 'Before I can live with other folks, I've got to live with myself.' " The president understandably focused on the book as a morality play, but to my mind the strength of the novel lies less in the clarity of its message (that justice is served when we remember to think of the world as it looks and feels to others, particularly the less fortunate) and more in its tragic sensibility. Good does not really triumph over evil in To Kill a Mockingbird, not for Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly convicted of rape. In Lee's all-too-real rendering, the only redemptive feature of the white criminal-justice system in the Robinson case is that the all-white jury took a bit of time before convicting, rather than coming back quickly. Progress of a sort, perhaps, but it was not progress if you were Tom Robinson, who was shot to death after the trial. "In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's," Atticus tells his son, Jem, "the white man always wins." The novel is not a fairy tale, then, despite the sentiment that now shrouds it, but an honest portrait of a region, and of a nation, forever contending with the conflict between power and conscience.

I was in the audience in the White House that day and was reminded of the morning's events when news came last Thursday of the death of Benjamin L. Hooks, the civil-rights leader and minister who was honored immediately before Lee was. A son of the segregated South, born in Memphis in 1925, Hooks endured the injustices inflicted by the whites of whom Lee wrote. Best known as the leader of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992, he is one of a slowly disappearing cadre of civil-rights giants, men and women who, not so long ago, marched and worked to press America to apply the inherent meaning of its founding premise—that all men are created equal—to everyone.

With the passage of time and an African-American first family, it is growing more difficult to appreciate the world that confronted Hooks and the wondrous courage it took for him and his contemporaries to dare to change it. During World War II, Hooks, an Army sergeant, guarded European prisoners of war stateside. As Bush told the story, when it was time to eat, "whites-only restaurants would serve the prisoners, but not Sergeant Hooks."

He left Tennessee to go to law school, then came home, eventually rising to become a judge and serve on the Federal Communications Commission.

We should make a point to remember men like Hooks; they were founders of modern America in the way Washington and Adams and Jefferson were Founders of the nation itself. Like the Founders of old, though, Hooks and his colleagues lived real lives, full of trials as well as triumphs. At the NAACP in the years of Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, he found that it had been relatively easier to confront Jim Crow than it was to advance the fight for racial, economic, and social justice into every sphere of American life. The whites-only signs had come down; the barriers to equality of fact as well as equality of law were harder to overcome—and still are.

And yet he endured. "You've got to believe that tomorrow somehow can be and will be better than today," Hooks once said. Bush added: "Because he had that belief, because he held on to it, because he acted upon it, an old order has passed away, and all Americans can be grateful for the good works and the good life of Benjamin L. Hooks." There was applause then, and should be now. To Kill a Mockingbird inspires on the page. Benjamin Hooks did so in the arena.