No sooner did I learn the glorious news that Harper Lee is publishing a follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird than people started coming out of the woodworks to rain on my parade. Almost instantly, they showered the interwebs with speculation, everything from stories about how Lee was tricked into publishing Go Set a Watchman, to rumors that Watchman was going to be rubbish, to, worst of all, talk of a film adaptation. Another question circling around the book’s release is how Atticus’s views toward civil rights will appear in Watchman. The summary released by Harper Collins, the book’s publisher, describes Scout as having to face up to political and personal crises when she returns to her hometown: this has led many people to believe that Watchman will portray Atticus as being far more bigoted than we believed him to be.
This brings up an issue than people have been arguing over for years: is Atticus Finch really a civil rights hero or is he just another component of the racist white establishment of the Old South? I think you know where I come down on this issue: I’m one of those adoring admirers for whom the name Atticus Finch is synonymous with everything that’s good in mankind. But that doesn’t mean that I think Atticus was perfectly justified in everything he said and did. Far from it, actually. I can point out a few instances in which I found Atticus to be unfair and hypocritical, but nevertheless, he’s still a hero to me.
The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, it didn’t take me long to realize that Atticus is an amazing man. However, things started to look off in Chapter 20, during Tom Robinson’s trial. While talking about the case with Dolphus Raymond, Scout tells Dolphus, “Atticus says cheatin’ a colored man is ten times worse than cheatin’ a white man.” That didn’t sit well with me; of course, if Atticus had said that cheating a particular black man, namely Tom Robinson, was ten times worse than cheating any other man, I would have understood perfectly. After all, Tom is poor, crippled, and struggling to support his family. He has enough problems without others adding to them. But that’s not what Atticus said: he said cheating any black man is ten times worse than cheating any white man. This suggests that Atticus sees some discrepancy between blacks and whites, though what it is, we don’t know for sure until Chapter 23. Here, Atticus says to the children, “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.”** That line gave me pause, but I was sure it couldn’t possibly mean what it sounded like. I continued under that delusion until I read an article about Harper Lee which mentioned that her father, after whom she modeled Atticus, was strongly in favor of segregation until about the 1950’s. That means that in the ’30’s, when TKM takes place, he was still holding tightly to the old ways. Most likely, Atticus was too.
So Atticus does believe that black people are inferior, at least in some ways. And yet, Atticus is still a hero. To figure out why, we have to take the advice of the man himself and try to see things from his point of view.
If Atticus was about fifty years old in 1936,*** that means he was born around the 1880’s. In 1880’s Alabama, Reconstruction was still fresh in people’s minds and most in the Deep South were still sore over the ending of the Civil War. Combine that with the decades of slavery and institutionalized racism that proceeded the war and it would be next to impossible for anyone born into this environment to escape all semblance of prejudice. This isn’t to say that all whites who lived in Alabama in the late 1800’s were racists, but more likely than not, the people whom a man like Atticus would have been surrounded by all his life would have taught him to believe that black people are inherently inferior to whites. No arguments and no dissension: in many white Southern communities in the late 1800’s, this was close to the only opinion a man would ever hear. It’s not that these people were necessarily malicious: rather, they too had only heard one side of the story from the time they were born. Considered in this light, it’s amazing that someone like Atticus (or Harper Lee’s father) could be as enlightened and understanding as he is.
In the book, Scout defined “fine folks” as “people who did the best they could with the sense they had.”**** When I read about Atticus, that’s exactly what I see: a man who was born and raised in a harsh, unforgiving time, and yet still managed to be as kind and decent as he knew how to his neighbors. Not only that, but he was able to teach his children to be that way too, despite their growing up in an equally toxic environment. That’s good enough for me.
*Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print. Pg. 229.
**Ibid. Pg. 252.
***Ibid. Pg. 102.
****Ibid. Pg. 147.