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.