Why so disappointed in Atticus Finch?


(Updated October 9, 2016)

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 hyper-sensitized 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 in today’s 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–at least a brave gesture, anyhow? On this point Nelle Harper Lee’s novels are prophetic – in the sense that she identifies the spirit of transformation and healing needed 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 re-baptism in the waters of freedom for everybody — beyond the societal framework that rested on the institution of slavery, that “mudsill of black” and its legacies. 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 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 generations among us already are bringing their own changes to the process, perhaps completing it in some ways, and finding new ways to “go around” the old issues or to change the patterns of discourse 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 it true that many younger people reject even the use of that language? Habits of racist/racial discourse are basic to the problem and better reformed.

So, Atticus Finch exemplifies members of a generation who found a way to express 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 personal price, for the sake of transformation in their communities. We should not be surprised or unduly dismayed, however, when those decisions and commitments were step wise or incremental, and somehow unsatisfactory in view of unperfected 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 as an icon of enlightened humanity. People are poor idols, prone to disappoint as societal or ideological icons.  Their life patterns look better at a distance than up close.  We live better by true words, not by ideology, nor 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–calls us–to better ways and a better day.

There are those who argue that change for the good cannot happen without revolution, and the record of the past suggests this is often the case. I want to argue, however, that revolutions, especially if they are violent and bloody, carry another lesson for us besides the one that violent revolution is a type of insanity and weakness in the first place.  The lesson is that our use of language, intention, discipline, and grace-filled, active concern and care for our loved ones and our communities are the things that contribute to a slower, preferable revolution. We must take care about what we say, how we say it, and how we act toward everyone–no exceptions–defeating our prejudices.  And so we can contribute to true human flourishing–what these days some are calling The Beloved Community.  This kind of transformation happens when the “Jim Crow” Atticus becomes the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.  The latter Atticus has at least begun a new way among his contemporaries, even if he is late doing it.


//Copyright Jerry Summers 2015//