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Rethinking Atticus Finch

Has Harper Lee done the nation a favour and reminded all that racism has not gone away, asks Reuben Guttman.

Gregory Peck starred in To Kill a Mockingbird as the lawyer Atticus Finch Joseph Sohm

It turns out that an older Atticus Finch – the lawyer who in earlier years represented a black man in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird – is, according to author Harper’s Lee’s recently released book Go Set a Watchman, a racist. From the front pages of the New York Times to talk shows across the airwaves, the fictional Finch is being dissected as if he were a real life hero that has fallen from grace. There have been questions about whether the author – now 89 years old --  was too mentally infirm to consent to the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Investigators from the State of Alabama reportedly even visited Ms. Lee at her nursing home to determine whether the author’s decision to publish the novel, written prior to Mockingbird, was the product of elder abuse.

Why has this caused such a stir and why is Atticus Finch so beloved? To Kill a Mockingbird was published six years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), a decision that to some degree signaled that the legal system could be a legitimate tool to battle discrimination. Finch, of course, was a white lawyer in a southern town representing a black man. And, perhaps and maybe just perhaps, he became a symbol for others not directly impacted by racism to take on the battle in the coming years. I am, in particular, reminded of the white Justice Department Lawyers, including John Doar, who litigated voting rights cases in Mississippi in the 1960’s.

That a white man in a southern town could advocate on behalf of a black man was an important message in 1960. Back then, Harper Lee did the nation a service when she created Atticus Finch. 

The publication of Go Set a Watchman comes seven years after the election of Barak Obama lulled some into belief that discrimination had seen its day, while providing others with the perception that discrimination in this era could go undetected.  

The tragic shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, among other recent events, was a reminder that discrimination (to loosely borrow a phrase from the poet Langston Hughes) is festering like a sore that we notice only when it runs. Yet, look hard enough, search the internet, and it is easy to find cyber space meetings of the Klu Klux Klan and the most vulgar reminders that racism and antisemitism are unfortunately alive.

The events of Charleston were tragic and of course noticeable. 

Unfortunately discrimination too often is not noticeable except to the victim. Employers biased by their own perceptions can still, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, make decisions based on race, religion or gender that are almost impossible to redress in a court of law.      

I suppose that there is some sadness in learning the true prejudices of Atticus Finch. But maybe Harper Lee has once again done the nation a service by reminding us that racism – and the discrimination that it produces – can be harboured by the most unlikely of characters.

Posted by:

Reuben
Guttman

14 July 2015

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