A legend seen then and now

When Lee Echols was in high school in Augusta in the 1970s, his English teacher posed a question.

“Was Atticus wrong to have a black maid when he was defending a black man in court?”

The question at once was absurd and searing. Having a black maid – or yard man, for that matter – was relatively common for even middle-class whites in those days. We never freighted this fact with moral dimension. Yet, the question forced Lee and his classmates to look more deeply at the givens of their world.

“The question was critical to consider,” Lee wrote me in an email. “Because it digs down to the struggle Southern men had.”

And Atticus Finch was key to that struggle. He still is.

Lee, now a marketing executive for an Atlanta hospital system, was responding to an email I sent to more than 50 white men in my iPhone contacts. I asked them about Atticus Finch’s role in shaping what it was and is to be a white man in the South.

This followed the news that Atticus Finch at 72 wasn’t the same character we had come to cherish from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In Lee’s newly released “Go Set a Watchman,” Atticus – enlightened and brave in the early ’30s world of Maycomb, Ala. – has devolved into an ordinary small-town, small-minded white man of the 1950s.

The responses were fascinating. To some, Atticus meant little. To others, he meant quite a lot. For a few, the question tapped a deep well. I regret that I can name and quote so few here. Quite a few conflated the book’s character with Gregory Peck, whose work had already become associated with social justice causes. Peck’s presence bent the story toward the idealist Maycomb lawyer.

Atticus looms large in my personal story. Mom and dad took my brother and me to see the movie at a Fort Worth drive-in when I was 8. Our world had few Bob Ewells or Atticus Finches. Race was never broached at home – other than occasional reminders against wandering into a nearby black neighborhood. We had a black maid, and I recall with fondness kneeling on a stool next to her as she washed the dishes and told me stories.

The scenes with Calpurnia were familiar and tangible. But in Atticus, I saw something exotic and mesmerizing. I confess I experienced pure envy watching Scout – who would have been about my age – curled up against her father on the porch swing to receive his gently framed view of the world.

I didn’t know fathers did that, particularly with their sons. Don’t get me wrong: My dad was a fine man who instructed me well when we fished or camped. But he was a distracted businessman locked in a desperate and ultimately futile pursuit of success.

Atticus toppled Dad in my mind’s pantheon. He was the father I wanted and the father I wanted to be. I read the book to both my sons at bedtime when they were small – no wonder my oldest became a lawyer who defends poor people in Brooklyn.

David K. Secrest, a retired AJC editor and close friend, saw his father as much akin to Atticus. David was raised in a small South Carolina town, where his dad held a stature similar to what Atticus held in Maycomb. Like Atticus, David’s father seemed to change with age. “I do think my father actually was an unsung hero of the civil rights movement,” David wrote me. “I am certain that he did not change his views on race and black-and-white issues or on what he believed and fought for, or against, in the 1950s and ’60s, but he did become more conservative.

“Generally, he would say, and did say, that he didn’t change; others, or the times changed. or whatever. And I think one of the main reasons I found it odd and somewhat disconcerting is that, once I had read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and, especially, seen the movie, my father was Atticus Finch, or, more accurately, Gregory Peck.”

Charles McNair, a local writer, wonders if “the great book gave a smokescreen to too many Southerners who sat on the porch and shelled peas and ignored injustices during the time when their acts might have made a difference. Too many Southern folk pretend they were like Atticus,” Charles wrote. “The truth is that they did nothing, or worse, as the Movement finally freed black Americans … 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.”

The Atticus character has always troubled Tom Crawford, a friend and local journalist. “It seemed a bit odd to me that a person of such compassion and racial sensitivity would have continued to live in such a sinkhole of racism and festering hatred as Maycomb,” Tom wrote. “After seeing how the town vilified and railroaded an innocent man, how could anyone with a conscience continue to live there?”

Tom wonders if this apparent conflict isn’t resolved by Harper Lee’s portrayal of Atticus Finch as bigot in “Watchman.” “So, maybe he wasn’t really that uncomfortable at all with the racism of his hometown,” he wrote.

Perhaps the “new” Atticus is in harmony with the “old” Atticus. When he defended Tom Robinson, was Atticus animated by a desire to see black people treated as equals or his faith in the majesty of the law?

To be sure, in a place like 1933 Maycomb it would have been pretty radical to argue that a black man merited the Constitution’s protection. Yet, it’s hard to find anything that suggests Atticus sees Tom as his equal.

Is Tom Robinson no more than a mockingbird to Atticus? “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy,” he tells Scout. “They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

So in the view of men like Atticus, blacks, like mockingbirds, warranted their protection, but not full adulthood or citizenship - not yet. Is the “new” Atticus really so different?

This is what he imparts to a a grown Jean Louise: “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it.”

This sounds shocking in 2015 America, but, sadly, it is pretty advanced thinking in the rural Alabama of the 1950s (and, in fact, in pockets of the rural South today.)

If “Watchman” offers us the same Atticus at a later point in the arc of his life, it also hints that his evolution may not be complete. As he argues with Jean Louise, Atticus offers this promising note. “I’m 72 years old,” he tells her. “But I’m still open to suggestion.”

For an aging Southern man, this holds much hope.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.