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What Did Atticus Finch Think of the Civil Rights Movement?

02/10/2015 03:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
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That Harper Lee will publish another novel in July, Go Set a Watchman, has spawned a powerful mixture of excitement and concern. Excitement because the new book is a sequel of sorts to her 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most widely read and beloved books ever written and the source for an acclaimed film. Concern because Harper Lee may no longer able to care for her own interests and the new book, written before Mockingbird, when Lee was still learning her craft, might not succeed at the same high level. The result could tarnish the exalted stature of Mockingbird and its author.

Yet there is more at stake in publication than just another pleasant summer read for curious fans. Commentators have mostly ignored the way that the new book will shine a spotlight on America and the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The July publication will inevitably raise questions about whether we should continue to assign Mockingbird to schoolchildren and to revere the fictional hero Atticus Finch for having stood up to the racist norms of the Old South.

In small-town Alabama in the 1930s, Finch not only provided a passionate defense for a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, but confronted a lynch mob intending to kill the defendant before trial. Standing against his community in this way has made Atticus one of the great figures of 20th century American fiction and film. As I wrote in a recent essay, Atticus' actions thoroughly upended the notion of white male chivalry that existed in the South at the time: that he was non-violent; that he fought for a "lost cause" that was not the Confederacy, but a victim of oppression rooted in the Confederacy -- and that he did so by attacking a white woman in a grueling cross-examination, all reversed what Jim Crow whites thought heroism was.

Yet there is a spirited debate about the book and the heroism of Atticus. Some readers have always lamented that the most-assigned and most-read novel about the Jim Crow South focuses on a time before the civil rights struggle that was occurring when it was written. Others have attacked Atticus' commitment to justice as partial. Writer Malcolm Gladwell argues that Finch was an accommodator, who sought only to curb the greatest excesses of Jim Crow, not to displace it. He also says that Finch went along at the end of the novel with the sheriff's decision to "obstruct justice" in the case of Boo Radley's killing of Bob Ewell.

With Watchman, written before Mockingbird but set 20 years later in the mid-1950s, we are apparently going to experience a family argument between an adult Scout and an elderly Atticus over the great social struggle of the time. According to the publisher Harper Collins, the older Scout returns to Maycomb from New York and "is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father's attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she ... spent her childhood." Thus, we have a chance of learning exactly what Atticus thought of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education declaring public school segregation unconstitutional, and of the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 for refusing to move to the back of the bus, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott not so far from the fictional town of Maycomb.

As with the recent film Selma, Watchman will acquaint or reacquaint Americans with the nation's long struggle for civil rights. As Selma prompted renewed attention to President Lyndon Johnson, Harper Lee's new book will rekindle the debate over Atticus Finch. Those who revere him may have to reassess his heroic status. It is unlikely that Finch, a white man born in the late 19th century in a small town in the Deep South, and educated there, will fully embrace the 1950s challenges to his Southern traditions. Yet on one important occasion, he stood apart from his community and faced down a lynch mob, risking his life for justice, not entirely unlike those who came later and marched in the South for civil rights. Whether Atticus retains his standing in American consciousness will depend on what we learn from Watchman and, I suspect, whether we judge him for failing the standards of the present or for standing above those of the past.