Can Atticus Finch still be our hero?
After Harper Lee, who created the saintly Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has now given disturbing details about him in her newly released book, “Go Set a Watchman”?
We learned through the eyes of Jean Louise, his adoring eight-year-old daughter called Scout in “Mockingbird,” how Atticus stood up to most of his small Alabama town’s white community and earned the devotion of the blacks by vigorously, but unsuccessfully, defending an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman.
Almost 20 years later, shortly after the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, “Watchman” has Jean Louise, now grown-up and living in New York, come home for two weeks to visit her father, whom she still loves and worships. She also comes to continue a shaky romance with Hank, a childhood friend, and now Atticus’s law partner.
Jean Louise sees Atticus and Hank leading a meeting of the local White Citizens’ Council, one of many established throughout the South in the wake of the Brown decision to resist the Supreme Court’s and the NAACP’s efforts to destroy “the Southern Way of Life.”
Atticus had told her his slogan was “equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” But there he and Hank were, listening respectfully to the speaker’s racist ranting, “… essential inferiority … kinky wooly heads … still in the trees … greasy smelly … marry your daughter … mongrelize the race … mongrelize.”
Jean Louise later explains to Hank, “I saw you and Atticus in your glory down there at that table with that—that scum, that dreadful man, and I tell you my stomach turned.”
Seeing her beloved father and the man she might marry “made me so sick I threw up and haven’t stopped yet. How in the name of God could you?”
Hank tries to explain that the effort is just “a sort of warning to the Negroes for them not to be in such a hurry.”
Confronting Atticus, she says the Citizens’ Council contradicts everything he had taught her. When he tries to persuade her that the council is their only defense, she responds, “Don’t give me any more double-talk. You’re a nice, sweet, old gentleman, and I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.”
Do we now, like Jean Louise, have to push Atticus Finch out of our pantheon of heroic images?
Not so fast.
Before the book ends, after reflection prompted by her uncle, Jean Louise apologizes to Atticus for her outburst against him.
Atticus responds, “You may be sorry, but I am proud of you … I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right — stand up to me first of all.”
Jean Louise concludes that the conflict between those pushing for change and those resisting it is “like an airplane: they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy — it’s a matter of balance. I can’t beat him, and I can’t join him.”
“Atticus?” she calls, “I think I love you very much.”
Even though he is on the wrong side of history, Atticus’s core human values win out as they led Jean Louise to confront him and to make him proud of her for doing so.
Many of our parents and grandparents who lived in Atticus’s times, like him, would never fully accept the changes the Civil Rights Revolution brought to our region. But the core values of human kindness and respect for all people that they taught prepared their children to welcome and even work for those changes.
And for that, they and Atticus are for me, although imperfect, still heroes.
— D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.