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An enduring story of the South

On the 50th anniversary of "To Kill a Mockingbird," looking back and ahead.

The sound of a train rumbling in the distance has always been soothing to me, the plaintive wail of its horn a reminder of my childhood.

I heard that sound often as a little boy, at all times of the day and into the night, whenever an occasional train passed near my home.

My brothers and I would sometimes stop playing to count the cars of a rail caravan. At night in bed, if I heard a train, I wondered where it was going and whether one day I, too, would travel far from home.

The sound of a passing train pushed me into reverie a week ago while I was in Montgomery, Ala., for an observance of the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize for its author, Harper Lee. But the reclusive octogenarian, who lives in Monroeville, Ala., didn't make our party.

I stayed at a very fine downtown hotel with some great sight lines of the predictably tranquil Alabama River. But it was also close to an unseen rail crossing, and a couple of hours before dawn I could hear the clear sound of a passing train blowing its horn.

Awake now, I thought about the conversation I'd had the night before with Mary Badham, who as a child actress played Scout, the precocious daughter of Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of the celebrated book.

Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus, the noble attorney who unsuccessfully defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama. Badham was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

She told me that her great-grandfather was a lawyer who coincidentally had similarly defended a black man accused of rape, and as a result was visited by the Ku Klux Klan. The coincidence goes beyond that.

In the movie, Scout recognizes the men who show up to intimidate Atticus and calls them out by name. Badham said her ancestor told the hooded Klansmen that they couldn't hide their identities because he recognized the "nags" they were riding.

Badham and I are about the same age, and we shared stories about growing up in segregated Birmingham on opposite sides of the racial divide. Her home was near Ramsay, the formerly all-white high school that I attended after integration arrived in the late 1960s.

Our conversation was a fitting coda for my day. Earlier, while walking off a barbecue lunch, I found myself in a tiny park with a handful of benches and several historic markers. One plaque noted the spot where Rosa Parks had boarded the bus whose driver had demanded that she get up and move to the back so white folks could sit.

Parks refused. The bus driver called the police. You know the rest of the story.

Energized now, I decided to walk some more. It didn't take long before I was on Dexter Avenue, and after a few blocks I arrived at the church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached after Parks' arrest.

Now called Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, it sits within eyesight of the State Capitol. But the church might as well have been a thousand miles away during the 1955 bus boycott, when Alabama's elected leaders couldn't care less about what black people wanted.

Contrast that to today, when a black man is as close to being elected governor of the state as any African American since Reconstruction. Artur Davis, a congressman, has a double-digit lead heading into Tuesday's Democratic primary.

Ironically, it's the black vote that could deny Davis a place in history. He voted against President Obama's health-care overhaul, which may have helped him win over some white Alabamians but dropped his black support to 50 percent.

New radio ads featuring two of his peers in Congress, civil rights icon and Alabama native John Lewis of Georgia and Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, may get Davis past the primary.

If that happens, the historic possibility of the state's first African American governor may help more black voters in the general election forgive Davis for his health-care vote. The history that would be made certainly helped Obama pull skeptical black voters in 2008.

I've met Davis a couple of times, once about three years ago in Philadelphia. He's of the new generation of black politicians who disdain racial politics. Some of them, including Mayor Nutter here and Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, are having a hard time maintaining heavy black support as a result.

That's understandable. Whenever black people want to believe it's a new day, they are confronted with the reality of someone like tea party darling Rand Paul, who sounds like an old Dixiecrat in his opposition to civil rights laws.

After winning Kentucky's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, Paul said in response to a question that he didn't believe the laws should tell private businesses whom they must serve. The comment embarrassed the GOP's black national chairman, Michael Steele, who conceded that Paul's view made him "uncomfortable."

Paul has since tried to put the genie back into the bottle, saying, "I believe we should work to end all racism in American society and staunchly defend the inherent rights of every person."

But even that statement has undertones that might make some black people "uncomfortable." Anti-affirmative-action activists typically say their goal is to "end all racism" by getting rid of special treatment for blacks.

Will Paul win if that's what he means? Can Davis win? It's something to think about while lying in bed listening to the sound of a passing freight train as it bumps its way through the night.