The Harper Lee classic was selected because it is a novel of hope, tolerance, strength, acceptance and fortitude in the face of evil.
When, four months ago, a small committee of Chicago librarians selected "Mockingbird" to kick off the city's One Book, One Chicago initiative, they saw it as a way of getting local residents of all ages, races and backgrounds to talk together about the divisiveness, pain and unfairness of prejudice in U.S. society.
Yet, as the initiative culminates this week with a variety of activities, the book is more pertinent than it ever was, as Americans and their leaders wrestle with their emotions in the wake of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers, damaged the Pentagon and killed more than 5,000 people.
Take the issue of profiling.
African-Americans have long aruged that they are singled out by police for special (and often harsh) treatment simply because of their color. In Lee's novel, Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of rape, "was guilty because he was black," says Cleo Baker, who will be leading two book group discussions of the novel this week.
But that sort of profiling isn't limited to African-Americans.
"There's a lot of profiling now against Arab-Americans after the attacks in New York and Washington," says Baker, business manager at the Edgewater Presbyterian Church and a professional book group leader for the Chicago Public Library system.
Indeed, some angry Americans have lashed out against people from the Middle East -- or who appear to be from the Middle East -- simply on the basis of their clothing or appearance, thus falling into the same racist trap as the white society portrayed in Lee's book.
"We've had two women in the neighborhood with veils over their faces who were hassled about what happened, one who was Bosnian and one who was Arab. The interesting thing is that one was hassled by black people, and one by white people," says Baker.
Baker, who is African-American himself, is one of dozens of book group leaders who will be moderating conversations this week throughout the city and some suburbs as part of One Book, One Chicago.
Leaders of the the project, aimed at giving a boost to reading and helping knit the city's multiethnic, multiracial fabric together, have scheduled such events for this week as a formal lecture by "Mockingbird" expert Claudia Durst Johnson, a mock trial re-enacting a scene from Lee's novel, dramatic readings of the work and screenings of the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck.
Centerpiece of city's book fest
It's the first time the city has attempted a project like this, and it forms the centerpiece of the library system's second annual book festival, City of Big Readers, Chicago Book Week. As part of the festival, a host of writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Ana Castillo, Jane Hamilton and Sara Paretsky will do readings and book signings around the city throughout the week.
Baker will moderate a discussion of "To Kill a Mockingbird" on Monday at the Mayfair branch library at 4400 W. Lawrence Ave. and on Tuesday at the Starbucks at 1070 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., a half block from Edgewater Presbyterian Church.
Like many Americans, he read the book as a teenager in the 1960s. "Reading the book now at 54, I've got some problems with it," he says.
For one thing, says Baker, Robinson and other African-Americans in the book are too docile. For another, racism prevails.
"Where's Johnny Cochran?" Baker says. "I would love to see a story where a black lawyer comes in and saves the guy. We need black characters who don't die. We need black characters who defend themselves."