Books are Enough

The Power of Free, Self-Selected Reading

Atticus Finch Under Attack

Headlines from many media outlets announced that Atticus Finch was a racist. Media appeared to be apoplectic over a few revelations about the soon to be released “Go Set a Watchman.” I now know why Harper Lee does not do interviews and just wants to be left alone. We shall deal with the racist allegations later. First, it is important to understand how Lee’s famous “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been co-opted over the years. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a convenient tool for the media and many academics to push the book as some broadside on race relations. While this aspect is there- it was never the only theme. One main theme in the book is that you do not harm others who have not deserved emnity. While the Tom Robinson trial is an example of this -we also see it with Boo Radley (white male) and a Mockingbird ( flying creature). Remember the admonition Atticus gives to Scout about shooting these birds. You might want to read that part again.  The theme of racism is there, but there are wider issues of morality involved.

Now what is this about Atticus Finch being a racist? Liberal columnist Jonathan Alter called Atticus the fictional equivalent of Bill Cosby. This is, of course, absurd. But it is instructive on how the media and some in academia continue to express outrage over reality and make the unpardonable mistake of judging people of the past by the standards of today. One of the first things I learned in my training in the field of history is that you must read evidence forward- not backward.

The new Harper Lee book comes out on Tuesday but I read the first chapter online. Apparently, some unscrupulous media outlets are releasing information about the rest of the book. It is reported that Atticus attended a KKK rally and made some other comments about “Negroes and segregation.” I can assure you that a white man attending a KKK rally in Alabama during the time periods both books cover is hardly news. The angst over integration during the same time period is hardly news. If these things are surprising I am sorry to inform you that there is gambling going on right now in Vegas.

Atticus Finch showed what all good lawyers do in his defense of the innocent Tom Robinson. Personal politics aside – everyone who became a lawyer because of Atticus should not be afraid to keep his “picture” on the wall. Apparently “Go Set a Watchman” gives us a full view of how most white Americans (and not just in the South I might add) felt about race issues during the time periods in the books. Atticus was very much a man of his times- and a bit more progressive than most. Actions speak louder than words. 

Did anyone even notice that in the first chapter, Lee points out that Maycomb County still votes Republican? This is important because during the time periods covered in both books the Democratic Party ran the “Solid South” strategy. They controlled the South and perpetuated Home Rule- white power and control. It was the Republican Party that was progressive on race. Maycomb was a progressive oasis in a Democratic swamp. I wonder if this theme will be explored in the book? It would be fascinating. But remember, what we consider progressive today should not be used to judge the 1930s-1950s. Only judge people “of the time -by the time.”

From what I gather, this new book will remind us of the ways some dealt with the issues of the day and how easy it is to judge people without knowing them.

 Those who are tossing around the racist salad about Atticus Finch have missed one of the main themes of  “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The media has turned Atticus into Boo Radley and that Mockingbird Scout is tempted to shoot. What did they ever do to you? 

You don’t shoot a Mockingbird. You don’t kill a Mockingbird.


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