THE BLOG
07/21/2015 02:29 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2016

Atticus Finch, Representative American

VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm via Getty Images

Has a beloved icon of civil rights fallen? Disappointment has greeted the revelation that Atticus Finch, the compassionate lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of rape in Harper Lee's progressive novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is a racist as a 72-year-old in Go Set a Watchman. But a look back at three Americans--Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman--shows that contradictory stances on race have been common even among some of the greatest pioneers of civil rights. Atticus, like these figures, is now valuable as both an inspiration and a warning.

Jefferson, like his fellow Virginian George Washington, owned hundreds of slaves, and he had children by one of them. In Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson described black people as unimaginative and oversexed. Because he thought that a race war would result if slavery were abolished, he advocated the deportation of blacks once they were freed.

But Jefferson almost singlehandedly set in motion the forces that led eventually to civil rights. His words in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal," over time resulted in tremendous strides toward social justice. The biggest one was taken by Abraham Lincoln, who grounded his political philosophy in Jefferson and fused America's identity with human equality in the Gettysburg Address. By directing the Civil War with determination and skill, Lincoln helped bring about the toppling of slavery.

Still, Lincoln did not escape the racism of his era. He once declared that there was a "physical difference" between blacks and whites that would prevent them from living equally in America, which is why for a time he advocated the voluntary emigration of free blacks to Liberia or elsewhere. In his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas he said that he did not condone political participation for black people. He enjoyed blackface minstrel shows and was known to use the "n" word. But his views changed markedly during the war, as he befriended leaders like Frederick Douglass and witnessed the heroism of African American soldiers. On April 11, 1865, four days before his death, he became the first American president to call publicly for the vote for blacks.

Also contradictory was Lincoln's contemporary Walt Whitman. In his landmark poetry volume Leaves of Grass, Whitman redefined democracy by embracing people of all ethnicities and religions. His poems contain remarkable passages in which his speaker identifies closely with African Americans and flouts the repellent racial attitudes of his day. And yet, as time passed, Whitman came to absorb some of those cultural attitudes. After the Civil War, he opposed the vote for African Americans, and he accepted the era's ethnological science, which predicted the extinction of supposedly inferior races, including blacks and Native Americans.

Such inconsistencies, however disturbing, do not justify a wholesale rejection our iconic Americans. Even America's most admirable people were products of their respective cultures. We can learn from their repugnant moments, just as the older Atticus can serve as an example not to follow. But we should treasure the moments when these figures transcended their times and stood for democracy in the broadest sense.

Just as we remember the Jefferson of the Declaration, the Lincoln of Gettysburg, and the Whitman of Leaves of Grass, we can continue to put our hearts behind the Atticus who boldly defended Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.