Atticus Finch Is NOT a Racist…But He’s Not the True Hero of the Story, Either!

In late July, I took advantage of my bookstore membership discounts and ordered both To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) and Go Set a Watchman (GSAW). I had seen the movie version of TKAM as a girl and I already owned a copy of the book that I’d read as a girl, but it was buried under or behind the mountain of books that have taken hold of my house. It’s a good thing I bought it again, because my old copy was based on the movie (i.e., it was a “student” version)—even featuring movie photos of Atticus and Scout on the cover. I had no idea that my new copy features the original cover of the book.

Since my Mom and I both were such fans of TKAM “The Movie” (and of Gregory Peck), I thought this would be a nice summertime reading project for us to enjoy together. It was! TKAM arrived first, so I handed it over to Mom so she could read the book for the first time. A few days later, GSAW arrived. We read voraciously, then traded books so that we could read both books before discussing them. In essence, we both came to the same conclusion: together, TKAM and GSAW make a brilliant story.

While reading GSAW, I was anxious to discover whether the buzz about Atticus being a racist was true. In my eyes, Atticus Finch was NOT a racist; he was a just, decent man of Law (both civic and moral) who, having tried to stand up for a Black man as a middle-aged man of the 1930s, decided to take a different course of action in the 1950s: he went undercover, “joining” his local Citizen’s Council in order to stem the tide of their racist vision.

In rereading TKAM, I discovered that (1) I had never read the full story before, and (2) that the full story is about Transition of the highest order—the culture shock of the South as it grappled with its loss of “face,” from after the Civil War to the early decades of the 20th Century, including the Great Depression and the lead-up to World War II.

To appreciate the scope of this story, you have to let go of any preconceived ideas you may have about American history, especially as it relates to the place of Black Americans and Slavery in that history, and allow yourself to see this history from the perspective of the Southern half of the country.

This book brilliantly lays out the roots of the White American South of the 1930s from the perspective of an exceptional little White girl growing up in a small town that was steeped in its 19th Century worldview, culture, and history but was beginning to face the changes being wrought by the greater 20th Century American society. And it did so by incorporating a 19th Century style of storytelling: Southern Gothic, wherein characters are essentially archetypes, and the point of the story is as old as time itself: a community (village, town, etc.) faces monsters (both internal and external) that threaten the very existence of said community, unless a hero steps up to beat down the monster and save the community.

Atticus Finch was, to a certain extent, a relic (from the attic) of the 19th Century South, after the Civil War. His family was central to the history and roots of the town, and yet, he was a man of principle, who treated everyone, including the Black citizens of the town, with equal respect. He taught his children, Jem and Scout, to do the same. And it was no accident that he entrusted the raising of his children to his Black housekeeper, Calpurnia.

Jem Finch, Atticus’s firstborn, was a “gem”—protector of his little sister, football player, and “All-American” boy, a little ahead of his time.

Dill, the kooky outsider (modeled after, of all people, Truman Capote, who was a lifelong friend of Harper Lee’s), brought adventure and new ideas to his friends Jem and Scout.

Scout Finch, the tomboy-misfit daughter in a world where women just didn’t do (or say, or think) certain things, took everything she learned from the world she grew up in and became the “scout” who would, in the end, point the way to that more just and equal society that her father ingrained in her as the right way to go.

Similar stories have been told in literature and film. I am most reminded of The Member of the Wedding, the novel by Carson McCullers, an author who also employed the “Southern Gothic” genre in her works. More recently, there has been The Help (which I confess I have never read, nor seen the movie); and for a Black perspective, I believe The Butler is a work in the same vein as these others.

But, for me, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman remain the most brilliant “Southern” novels I have ever read: true American classics.


7 thoughts on “Atticus Finch Is NOT a Racist…But He’s Not the True Hero of the Story, Either!

    1. I will do my best. In Watchman, When the now-adult Scout finds out about Atticus joining the Citizen’s Council, Scout assumes Atticus is a racist, contrary to everything he taught her as a child. Scout has been living in New York. Both Atticus and his brother Jack explain to Scout that Atticus only joined the Citizen’s Council to slow down its racist tactics. He can’t really fight the violent tendencies of groups like the KKK, but he can soften the rhetoric of this Citizen’s Council so that it doesn’t tear his town apart the way other parts of the South are being torn apart in the ’50s—with the protests and the hoses and dogs, etc. Atticus was neither an open or a closet racist, nor a separatist. He was a man ahead of his own times, but not quite caught up to the racial/societal changes he knew were coming. Thus, as a widower, he specifically chose his (secretly educated) Black housekeeper Calpurnia to raise his children—even allowing the children to openly visit Calpurnia’s Black community—rather than have his own lily-white-Southern-lady sister raise them, knowing that his children (especially Scout) would be prepared to live in the more integrated and equal society he knew was coming. That’s the best I can do. You should read the book! It’s an eye-opener, but I do not come to the same conclusions as the critics. Thanks for your comment!

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