She Failed to Act Like a Negro Should Act

“We venture to say that fully ninety per cent of all the race troubles in the South are the result of the Negro forgetting his place. If the black man will stay where he belongs, act like a Negro should act, work like a Negro should work, talk like a Negro should talk, and study like a Negro should study, there will be very few riots, fights or clashes.” (Leon Litwack, Trouble In Mind, 1999, First Vintage Books Edition, New York, p.179).

The article in Litwack’s book appeared in the Shreveport (Louisiana) Times in 1919 as justification for the white race resorting to violence against the black population, in Shreveport, Louisiana. But it was also applicable throughout the South. It was part of the white man’s rules of racial etiquette. Blacks were expected to follow the rules as defined by white society. When white folks approached, you got off the sidewalk, even if it meant walking in mud. You always bowed your head and never dared to look white folks in the eye, is only one example of the many rules that Blacks were expected to follow out of deference to the “superior race.”

Professor Leon F. Litwack writes, in his historical account of the Jim Crow years, Trouble In Mind, about what happened when a Black man failed to follow the rules of racial etiquette in the South: “Rufus Moncrief made one mistake, when on his way home from work he encountered a group of white men. He did not display the expected humble demeanor and seemed reluctant to pull off his hat to them when they spoke to him. The men beat him badly, and soon other whites joined in the attack, some of them severing Moncrief’s limbs with a saw. They dragged what remained of him to a nearby tree and strung him up as they continued to mutilate his body.” (Litwack, p. 308) According to the white man’s rules of racial etiquette, Rufus failed to act like a Negro should act, and had to pay the ultimate penalty.

In 1913, in Valdosta Georgia, Mary Turner failed to act like a Negro should act when she set out to seek justice for her husband, who had recently been lynched. For her actions, the eight month pregnant Mary was the victim of a white mob, “determined to teach her a lesson.” After tying her ankles together they hung her from a tree, head downward. Dousing her clothes with gasoline, they burned them from her body. While she was still alive, someone used a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs to cut open the woman’s abdomen. The infant fell prematurely from her womb to the ground and cried briefly, whereupon a member in the mob crushed the baby’s head with the heel of his boot. (Litwack, p. 288)
One hundred years later, on a road in Texas a young, educated and confident Black woman, Sandra Bland, was pulled over by a Texas Highway Patrolman on what can be considered a very weak offense. When Trooper Brian T. Encina asked Sandra to put out her cigarette while he appeared to be writing her a ticket, she told him no. It is at this point that southern history raised its ugly, racist head and smacked Sandra right in the face. Southern history tells us that Sandra failed “to act like a Negro should act.” She had the audacity to tell a white man wearing a uniform, that no law prohibited her from smoking a cigarette in her car. But she broke the hundred-year rule of white racial etiquette, when she failed to adhere to the trooper’s demand. But maybe she didn’t know those rules were still in effect, in the minds of many southern whites.

Over the years since the Shreveport article, many Blacks have failed to adhere to the white man’s rule of racial etiquette. Emmit Till defied that rule and paid the ultimate price with his life. Medgar Evers defied that rule and was shot in the back. Thousands of Blacks defied that rule during the Civil Rights Movement and were beaten by southern police. Trayvon Martin defied that rule; Michael Brown defied that rule; and dozens of other young Blacks have defied that rule and all are dead. Despite the constant exposure of violent police tactics against Blacks, they continue to happen because some of these white police officers still feel a sense of superiority over all Blacks, and when the white rule of racial etiquette is broken they are compelled to punish the violator.
Ms. Bland evidently believed in the Constitution, and she thought all others shared her confidence that the document could protect her from being harmed when exercising her rights. What she didn’t realize is that the rules of racial etiquette will trump that Constitution every time. Whenever in direct conflict with the white man’s rules of racial etiquette, it is easily dismissed. The one constant throughout this country’s history has been that rule, and white policemen are demonstrating to us, as Blacks, their loyalty to it over loyalty to the Constitution.

The Real Atticus Finch Has Stepped Forward

Finally, the one character in the vast world of literature that I disliked most has converted me, and I am now his fondest admirer. I have made this conversion because, at last, he is being honest about whom he really is and what he represented over fifty years ago, when he came on the scene. Back in 1960, when southern leaders like Governor Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett, and George Wallace, along with Bull Connors were embarrassing the country with their bigotry, White America sought an alternative to these men. They craved that one person who was benevolent, smart, strong, handsome, understanding and courageous, and could take the attention from the bigots. Very conveniently along came Atticus Finch, the creation of Harper Lee in her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. This work of fiction was released during the period when our country was in racial turmoil. After hundreds of years of brutal oppression, Black Americans were saying no more, it has to end. But southern whites were fighting back with the message not yet we enjoy keeping you in a subservient status. It makes us feel good. It is therapeutic.


But soon the tactics used by the southern whites became embarrassing and shameful to the rest of the country. The United States took great pride in defeating the racist regime in Germany and liberating the oppressed Jews under Hitler. They viewed themselves as the liberators and greatest generation. White America argued that what happened in Europe could never happen here in the United States. But as the lynching, rapes and brutality by southern whites against Blacks continued well into the 1950’s, it appeared there were some similarities between the Nazi regime and the southern racists. White America became increasingly concerned and had to ask the question were they really that bad, and was there a comparison that could be made by their behavior here with that of Nazis Germany? They desperately needed a way out of this dilemma; they needed a hero. And it didn’t matter if he or she was created through fiction.

Lee gave them what they sought, Atticus Finch. Here was your consummate hero, with all the positive attributes you could expect in one person. He was well educated (a lawyer), he was a perfect father, he was a marksman with the rifle (you have to know how to shoot to be a hero with this crowd), he was compassionate and understanding, and he was courageous, a brave man willing to risk it all to defend a weak, illiterate, handicapped Black man in court. What more could White America look for and expect. He far exceeded their wildest imagination and so Harper Lee became the great writer of this great piece of fiction. The book was heralded as one of the best of the Twentieth Century. Every American must read it; all schools had to have it on the shelves for their students. And it was a mandatory read in all English classes in colleges and universities. After all, through this one character, the Constitution and the Founding Fathers were vindicated, the values that Americans claimed represented the country were intact, and all was good in the United States. Atticus Finch defended a Black man in 1930’s Alabama from charges that he accosted a white woman, and in doing so proved that this country in no way could be compared to a racist regime in Germany.

While this book was being heralded as the greatest piece of fiction since Herman Melville and Mark Twain’s works, Medgar Evers was shot in the back in his front yard in Mississippi, four little girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, three civil rights workers were shot to death in Mississippi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and the list of violent atrocities against Blacks and other civil rights workers continued. And that is why Atticus Finch was no hero to me. I disliked Atticus because he was telling the world a lie. He was not representative of the South and chances are, in reality, he would not have behaved in the manner that Harper Lee wrote in the novel.

For over fifty years, this country has been misled by Atticus. And now we will finally know the truth about this man with the release of Go Set a Watchman, a sequel to the Mockingbird. I imagine at 86, Harper Lee could not withhold the truth any longer. With this new version of Atticus Finch (which by the way was written before Mockingbird) she is mocking the vulnerability of her audience. I imagine she might say to the people who swallowed her distortion that you all should not be so vulnerable, in such a need to prove how good you are, wherein reality you aren’t better than anyone else.


White America creates these heroes, these greater than life people because they crave that kind of adulation. For some reason they have to be better than someone else, instead of just being as good as they can be. Finally, the “chickens come home to roost.” The one person who for so long nurtured their need to be superior to other people has exposed the dishonesty of these creations. Thank you Atticus Finch and thank you Harper Lee for correcting history.