Along with “everyone else” I’ve been reading along in the papers about the revelations in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Evidently in our hypersensitized society the news that another version of Atticus Finch was a segregationist is, well, shocking.
But should we be so surprised? Southern – or American – leaders as segregationists? May I say confidently at some point in the past we are talking about most leaders? One could naively argue it wasn’t so outside the South, but the degree to which it was so in most places, Southern or not, appears to be one of the greatest revelations for some folk the current generation.
There’s plenty to read about the thorough change that has occurred in the general society since, let’s say, the World War II period. The witness of the African-American leaders who led the drive for accountability is most important. Theirs was a drive to urge, or shame, the Congress and the state legislatures, the Supreme Court and the state courts, to be accountable to the Constitution of the United States and its Amendments regarding equality before the law. Dr. James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality, from the early 1940s onward, were primary examples.
Then what about Atticus Finch and his transformation away from segregationism? On this point Nelle Harper Lee’s novels are prophetic – in the sense of capturing the spirit of needed transformation and healing in her time and expressing that spirit, “speaking forth” the words most needed for the time in our social consciousness and conscience. Atticus was like so many other thousands of leaders whose essential conscientiousness needed a rebaptism in the waters of freedom for everybody — beyond the societal framework that, as Kenneth Stampp expressed it some time ago, rested on the legacy of slavery, that “mudsill of black”. If for any of them their Christianity was prophetic enough to draw them out of that slough of racism and help them to represent a better, more truly human way, then they did so, but as a tiny minority, especially in the South. Imagine the way that the non-prophetic but conflicted or sympathetic were overwhelmed in a society that equated the “natural” order of segregation with an equally “Christian” conception of order.
In the city where I live, the story resembles that of countless places across the South and, indeed, the United States. In whatever ways possible, at a certain time, and through the courts,and national and state legislatures, there were leaders of a new generation who recognized that change must come, and who, however hesitantly in most cases, worked through a process of change without waging a second civil war. That remembrance of the War Between the States actually had been responsible for much of the resistance and antipathy to fundamental social change. At a certain point in time, however, change had to occur. School integration, integration of city and county boards, hiring, and courts, were part of the process. The process was not immediate, and its completion is still not in sight, but the essential elements are present. Integration in the churches? Largely no, not even today as it should be. But most young people in the recent generation refuse to accept the old status quo there.
The younger and youngest generation among us already is changing the process, perhaps completing it in most ways, and finding new ways to “go around” the old issues or to change the patterns of discouse about them. You may agree with me that integration of the churches depends a great deal on the acceptability of “interracial marriage”. And isn’t is true that many in the new generations reject even the use of that language? Habits of racist/racial discourse are basic to the problem and better eliminated.
So, Atticus Finch exemplifies members of a generation who found new forms of enlightenment in a tensely racial atmosphere, even if they were not the vanguard of change. They were in varying degree the majority who decided to get along in order to get along. Many of them made difficult decisions and commitments, often paying a bitter price, for the sake of transformation in their communities. We should not be surprised or unduly dismayed, however, when those decisions and commitments were stepwise, incremental, and somehow unsatisfactory in view of perfected possibilities. Most commonly, our lives by definition are just that way. The stereotype of the person or group that achieves complete transformation is the stuff of mythologies, or of the comic books.
I should not have been surprised that so many folk suggested their possible dismay at Harper Lee, even in advance of reading Watchman, that Atticus was not always the Atticus they admired, perhaps as an icon of enlightened humanity. People are poor idols, prone to disappoint as societal or ideological icons. We live by true words, not by ideology, not by objectification as symbols; we live best by speaking true words and doing true things in a real world, in every present moment of the time we inhabit. If, by some transformative, right decision, a particular moment appreciates marvelously over moments past, then it is by some merciful, gracious process that invites us to better ways, a better day.
There are those who recognize and assert that certain changes cannot and will not occur short of revolution, and the record of the past suggests this is indeed the case. I want to argue, however, that revolutions, whether quick or slow, because they can be messy, especially bloody, carry a lesson for us. It is that our use of language, intention, discipline, and grace-filled concern for our loved ones and our communities are matters contributing to a slow revolution. In that context we can best emphasize the matters that contribute to true human flourishing. This kind of transformation best presents the possibility of the “Jim Crow” Atticus becoming the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.
//Copyright Jerry Summers 2015//