Chip Babcock Speaks: In Search of Atticus Finch

Jackson Walker

Atticus Finch, who sometimes went by the name of Gregory Peck, was not a litigator. In fact, "he had a profound distaste for the practice of criminal law" and made a living mostly on people's "entailments" and making "somebody's will so airtight can't anybody mess with it." (M 22, 104)1.

But in a small town like Maycomb, Alabama, in the early 1930s, a lawyer handled what there was. And one day Judge Taylor came calling with a request familiar to most trial lawyers. "I know you're busy and the children need your time but...." Would Atticus consider an appointment to defend an African-American man, Tom Robinson, who was accused of raping a white woman?

We should not be surprised that the man who raised his children to be unbiased, who was respectful to all people no matter their race, who opposed (not joined) the KKK, and who defended an innocent black man with all his considerable skill and passion did not completely escape the conventional social mores of his time.

The movie version of the book To Kill A Mockingbird captures in Atticus' face the conflict we all feel about doing one's duty to the system measured against the toll such a case will take on us and our families. After a few seconds' hesitation, Finch tells the judge, "I'll take the case."

As he explained later to his young daughter Jean Louise ("Scout" as she was known), he accepted the representation for a number of reasons. "The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you [or your brother] not to do something again," he said.

Litigators are aware that "simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally." Atticus, a single parent, told his young daughter, "This one's mine, I guess."

Most of us know the rest of the To Kill A Mockingbird story. Atticus and his children battle racial slurs and physical assault, Tom Robinson is convicted but the jury is, remarkably, out for several hours because his lawyer has tried a near-perfect case. The author, Harper Lee, wins a Pulitzer Prize, Gregory Peck receives an Academy Award as best actor for his portrayal of the Southern, Depression-era lawyer. People name their babies Atticus.

And then this summer Mockingbird's sequel, Go Set a Watchman, was published. The book follows Scout twenty years later, after she has moved to New York but returns home to visit Atticus in Maycomb. It is said that Watchman was written in 1956 before Mockingbird (which was published in 1960) and was sent back to the author by an editor who suggested a rewrite which became Mockingbird, but that is all speculation.

Regardless of its provenance, Watchman was met with outrage; not the literary sort (although there was that) but violent reaction to the critics' perception that Atticus is revealed as a "white supremacist" (Literary Review), "a bigot" (The New York Times), and "a reactionary extremist ... who joined the Ku Klux Klan" (NPR). It is as if the vast readership of Mockingbird (or at least the critics) felt that they had been fooled and betrayed. Atticus Finch is not who they thought he was. Quick – let's rename the babies!

Not so fast. The Atticus Finch of Mockingbird, for me anyway, is the product of Peck's performance and Tom Robinson's trial. For better or worse, he is the same man in both books, worthy of admiration despite his flaws. When he first took the case, Atticus told Scout he couldn't win it but "simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win." (M 87) But then he did almost win it with a skill that was breathtaking. He didn't have a jury consultant, but he had a "hunch," like a lot of great trial lawyers, that one of the Cunninghams from Old Serum, a trashy part of town, might be for him. So he didn't strike him, although he could have. "You might like to know," he told Scout's brother after the trial, "that there was one fellow who took considerable wearing down – in the beginning he was rarin' for outright acquittal." (M 254) The hunch was born of an intricate knowledge of the community and the character of the Cunningham family. In the end, though, the outcome was as he had originally predicted.

Atticus' critics have either not read Mockingbird very carefully or don't know much about the Deep South in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s. Atticus is the same man in both books and one that did the best he could in the times he lived. Certainly by today's standards his views (and those of virtually every other white person in the Deep South at the time) are abhorrent. But Atticus Finch was plainly less racist than most of his Maycomb constituents. He raised his children, as Watchman demonstrates, to break the vicious generational chain of racism. He is still worthy of admiration even if we cannot accept his 1950s (or 1930s) views on race. Scout admits as much to Atticus in Watchman: "You treat all people alike. I've never in my life seen you give that insolent, back-of-the-hand treatment half the white people down here give Negroes just when they're talking to them, just when they ask 'em to do something. There's no get-along-there-n***** in your voice when you talk to 'em." (W 251).

The people that put Atticus on a pedestal after Mockingbird raised him too high, and those that attack his character after Watchman set him too low. As one reviewer noted, "Watchman tells the painful but necessary truth about white racism in 1950s Alabama and in white America generally today, and it offers a bitter but timely dose of disillusion about racial progress and comforting fiction." (Literary Review).

In measuring the true character of Atticus Finch, one should start with the premise that, as the song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q says, "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist." What separates right-thinking people from their opposites is an effort to overcome their prejudices.

One of my heroes growing up in the Deep South was Reuben Askew, a member of the Florida legislature and later one of its most widely admired and respected governors. Askew grew up in Pensacola, Florida, less than two hundred miles south of Harper Lee's home of Monroeville, Alabama, (which served as the inspiration for the fictional Maycomb, Alabama). Lee was born in 1926; the governor two years later. Askew's wife's maiden name was Harper.

While running for the Florida Legislature in 1958, the year when Harper Lee was purportedly writing Watchman and, in fact, composing Mockingbird, Askew was confronted by a heckler who yelled out "You're a n*****-lover," to which the candidate replied, "Yes, I hope so ... the trouble is that I don't love them enough. The difference between you and me is that you're satisfied with your prejudices and I am trying to overcome mine." Atticus held to the same creed.

After Scout was taunted at school about her father being a n*****-lover, she asked him, "you aren't really a n*****-lover, then, are you?" to which he replied, "I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody ..." (M 124) He banned her from using the "n" word. ("Don't say n***** Scout. That's common." (M 85)) Atticus tried to overcome his prejudices as all right-thinking people do. By Governor Askew's standards, he may have fallen short and by today's standards, he certainly did, but measured against his times, his actions in both Mockingbird and Watchman speak louder than the words of white supremacy he spoke to Scout near the end of the second book set in 1954.

Consider Atticus' roots and how far he had to travel to any sort of racial tolerance and understanding. He was born in 1882 (a mere seventeen years after the end of the Civil War) at Finch's Landing, the homestead established by his ancestor Simon Finch with the aid of "three slaves." (M 4) "It was customary for the men in the family to remain on Simon's homestead ... and make their living from cotton." (Id.) On the property was the old cotton landing "where Finch Negroes had loaded bales and produce." (M 91) Thus, it is almost certain that Atticus' daddy owned slaves and held them until the Civil War, which left Simon's "descendants stripped of everything but their land." (Id.) Atticus and his brother left Finch's Landing to study law and medicine, respectively, thus breaking the tradition of Finch men living on the homestead.

After establishing a law practice in Maycomb, Atticus was elected to the state legislature in the 1920s and was serving there seven years later when Mockingbird takes place. It is very unlikely that he ran on a platform of racial tolerance. We know that he went to one meeting of the Ku Klux Klan probably "way back about 1920" (M 167). As he explained to Scout in Mockingbird, it "was a political organization more than anything." Id. He told her "The Klu Klux Klan is gone. It will never come back." (M 168).

That prediction was wrong, but Atticus was no Klucker, as Watchman makes clear. He attended one meeting to identify the people under the sheets (W 230) to know who he was up against but never went back. His brother explained to Scout in Watchman that he wouldn't "try to prevent them from puttin' on sheets and making fools of themselves in public ... the Klan can parade around all it wants, but when it starts bombing and beating people, don't you know who'd be the first to try to stop it? ...The law is what [Atticus] lives by" (W 267-68).

So there can be little doubt that Atticus held the views about race in Mockingbird that were explicitly revealed in Watchman. But his was a less virulent racism, if there is such a thing. Reverend Sykes, the pastor at the First Purchase African ME church, told Scout that "this church has no better friend than your daddy" (M 140), and when he walked out of the courtroom after Tom Robinson had been convicted, the Reverend said to Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin." (M 242).

He raised two children by himself (his wife died when Scout was two) and forbade them to use the "n" word. And he never uses the term descriptively in either Mockingbird or Watchman. Scout broke the chain of racial intolerance under her father's watch, influenced, no doubt, by the African-American cook who helped raise her with Atticus' approval and against the opposition of his Old South sister. The cook, Calpurnia, taught Scout to write. (M 20-21).

But his views, explicit in Watchman, that the races should be equal but separate and that Negroes are less advanced than white people and therefore not ready for full civil rights are foreshadowed in Mockingbird. In Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout that "cheatin' a colored man is ten times worse than cheatin' a white man." (M 230) Why? It is unspoken but Atticus undoubtedly believed that whites had a superior intellect, as he made clear in Watchman.

He described Tom Robinson to the jury in Mockingbird as a "quiet, respectable, humble Negro," perhaps because that would make a conviction less likely but also because that was his view of the race. "You'll see white men cheat black men every day," he told Scout's brother, Jem. "But let me tell you something and don't you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash." (M 253).

The Atticus Finch of most people's mind's eye after Mockingbird was fiction. Watchman administers a healthy dose of reality, but we should not discount the book because it tarnishes our idea of this American icon. And we should not be surprised that the man who raised his children to be unbiased, who was respectful to all people no matter their race, who opposed (not joined) the KKK, and who defended an innocent black man with all his considerable skill and passion did not completely escape the conventional social mores of his time. As one reviewer wrote: "Maybe Watchman really was a sequel – a follow-up by an author who learned more about the prospects of post-racial progress than she'd hoped to. If readers several decades ago weren't ready for such honesty, perhaps they are now." (The Atlantic)

1 Page references with an (M) before them are for To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the thirty-fifth edition. I thank client and friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Maurice Possley, for my copy signed by Harper Lee. Page references with a (W) before them are for Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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