So it turns out a half century on that Atticus Finch — America’s fearless moral compass on matters of race, our Moses of The South — got old and turned into just another crotchety Archie Bunker, barking about blacks, white outsiders and the meddlesome federal courts.
Some 20 years after representing a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch resurfaces in Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” as a man long tired of the civil rights movement and all the interference from outsiders.
“The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” Atticus raves. “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?” he asks his daughter Scout, now grown up and living in New York. “Do you want them in our world?”
We are startled to learn that Atticus Finch, who once attended a Klan rally, was capable of such noxious views. The new fictional portrait has set the literary world on its ear. The very beacon of the Southern civil rights movement, it turns out, was a flaming cross in the dark night.
What a double-cross! Think of all the good, justice-loving people — particularly in the South — who named their children and even their pets after Atticus Finch and other Harper Lee characters out of a respect for a distant time when, deep down, so many good Southerners stood for what was right.
So, what’s a child named Atticus to do now?
“My parents named me that before ‘Go Set A Watchman’ came out.”
“We had no idea!”
Go in for a name change?
Truly, this is even more startling than learning that America’s most lovable family physician, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, is actually a suspected serial rapist.
I was born to a family of proud Southerners who believed fervently in equal justice for all. And that, of course, included blacks. We were raised to say “yes, sir,” or “no, ma’am” to everybody, whether they were white preachers or black cooks.
Growing up, I would have been whipped for disrespecting a black adult just as fast as I would have been had I disrespected a white adult. Most likely, there would have been extra licks for disrespecting somebody black. My grandmother dragged all of us children to Richmond for the inauguration of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder — America’s first elected black governor — even though he was a Democrat.
The first movie I remember seeing was “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
It was very disturbing and I did not know why my parents rolled the television into the living room for us all to gather around and watch as a family. I could not have been more than five years old and surely did not understand it on any level whatsoever.
Given Americans’ fascination with divining motives, it will be debated for the next hundred years whether Atticus Finch of “Go Set A Watchman” is the same Atticus Finch of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
What blackened his heart? What turned him into such a monster?
But maybe it really isn’t so complicated. Maybe what’s going on here has been America’s saving grace since her founding. Perhaps the Atticus Finch of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is the very same racist who later emerges in “Go Set A Watchman.”
The Atticus of Mockingbird does not really care for black people. He is not some kind of activist. He is no part of any movement.
This Atticus Finch, the one we have loved for so long, is nothing more than a slave to the law. He loves only justice. And when he saw a man who was wrongly accused, he didn’t see a black man or a white girl. He simply saw a miscarriage of justice and fought to right it.
Freedom can be ugly business and sometimes you need a man in a suit with a steady hand who can shoot a rabid dog. It doesn’t matter what his opinions are on black people or white people. He just has to be able to shoot straight.
And maybe that is how Atticus Finch fooled us all for over half a century.
Charles Hurt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @charleshurt.