Harper Lee’s death is making international headlines, though she is known for only one accomplishment: To Kill a Mockingbird. The book reinforced the prejudices of the America’s elite and earned Lee eternal adulation by showing a heroic liberal lawyer, Atticus Finch, standing up to the racist, small-minded segregationist South. But last year’s release of Go Set a Watchmen, an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, tempered the adulation for Finch. As the New York Times notes in Lee’s obituary, “[M]any readers, who had grown up idolizing Atticus, were crushed by his portrayal, 20 years on, as a staunch defender of segregation.” [Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Dies at 89, by William Grimes, February 19, 2016]
When I applied to law school, the University of Michigan’s application included an optional essay to name a literary character who influenced your decision to attend law school. I did not end up matriculating there, but I remember joking with 0Ls (prospective law students) that, if I were an admissions officer, I would automatically throw out every candidate who chose Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for Atticus Finch.
Of course my political views influenced that notion. But even non-conservative friends agreed that Atticus Finch epitomized liberal do-gooding. Everyone throughout the legal world knew that citing him was trite and cliché even before we set foot in a law school.
Northwestern University Law Professor Steven Lubet described the attitude lawyers held towards Finch:
So Atticus Finch saves us by providing a moral archetype, by reflecting nobility upon us, and by having the courage to meet the standards that we set for ourselves but can seldom attain. And even though he is fictional, perhaps because he is fictional, Atticus serves as the ultimate lawyerFinch’s iconic liberal status extends beyond the legal profession. Oprah Winfrey described the book as “our national novel”. [Harper Lee: American Masters, PBS, March 20, 2012]. When the American Film Institute Announced its top 100 movie heroes of the 20th Century, Gregory Peck’s Fitch was #1, beating out Indiana Jones and James Bond.
[Reconstructing Atticus Finch, Michigan Law Review (1999)]
While Indiana Jones encountered Thuggee Death Cults and Nazi Mystics and James Bond faced super-villains bent on world domination, Atticus Finch fought the greatest evil—racism from ordinary Americans
Thus, Go Set a Watchman’s revelation that Atticus Finch was a racist is shocking. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Finch defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Alabama. Go Set a Watchman takes place in the same town during the 1950s, during the debates over segregation. And Finch is no longer the paragon of liberalism:
Freedman also criticized Finch for not hating all white racists, in particular calling the leader of the lynch mob "basically a good man". Even worse, Finch makes a sexist joke about Eleanor Roosevelt. This makes him a "passive participant in that pervasive injustice."
Freedman concluded that he
would have more respect for Atticus Finch if he had never been compelled by the court to represent Robinson, but if, instead, he had undertaken voluntarily to establish the right of the black citizens of Maycomb to sit freely in their county courthouse.After the publication Go Set A Watchman, black Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy argued: “Dismissed by some as the ravings of a curmudgeon, Freedman’s impression of Atticus Finch has now been largely ratified by none other than his creator, Harper Lee herself.” [Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ New York Times. July 14, 2015]
[Atticus Finch, Esq. RIP, Legal Times, February 24, 1992 (PDF)]
Yet this is not exactly true. Watchman is apparently an early draft of Mockingbird, so it’s not accurate to describe the Finch of Watchman as the “true” Atticus Finch rather than the rejected Atticus Finch. Yet in Watchman, Finch had still defended Tom Robinson. Thus regardless of whether it is viewed as a sequel or just a draft, Lee once envisioned Finch as a “racist” who defended a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
To former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, who is black, this is “the paradox at the heart of ‘Watchman’ that many white Americans still cannot or will not comprehend: that one can at once believe in the ideal of “justice for all” — as Atticus once purported to — and yet maintain a deeply ingrained and unexamined notion of racial difference.” [In Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ a less noble Atticus Finch, Washington Post, July 12, 2015]
But there’s no “paradox” in not supporting a liberal position on civil rights while simultaneously not wishing for innocent blacks to go to jail for crimes they did not commit. Indeed, there are real world examples. POLITICO points to moderate segregationists, Grover Hall and Bibb Graves, who defended the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping a white woman. Both Hall and Graves died before integration became a political issue in the 1950s [The Real Southerner Who Explains the Fictional Atticus Finch, by Josh Zeitz, July 19, 2015]
An even better example: James J. Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader, who was, along with Carleton Putnam, the leading intellectual defender of segregation during the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike Putnam, Kilpatrick focused on the Constitutional rather than scientific case for segregation. However, he still was capable of making very blunt statements about blacks as a race. In an submission to the Saturday Evening Post in 1963, Kilpatrick wrote:
The Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race. . . .Within the frame of reference of a Negroid civilization, a mud hut may be a masterpiece . . . . But the mud hut ought not to be equated with Monticello. . . Where is the Negro to be found? . . . He is lying limp in the middle of the sidewalk yelling he is equal. The hell he is equal.
[The Long Retreat on Race, by Jared Taylor, American Renaissance, August 23, 2013].
Yet just a decade earlier, Kilpatrick led the campaign to free Silas Rogers, a black man accused of shooting a white police officer. (Pictured at right: Kilpatrick greets Rogers on his release from prison.) As William Hustwit writes in his biography of Kilpatrick: "Even a segregationist like Kilpatrick could not ignore the racial bias in Virginia's legal system" which "briefly turned Kilpatrick into a crusader for black rights." Kilpatrick "independently interviewed witnesses and uncovered inconsistencies in the prosecution's case and police misconduct" and "bombarded Governor John S. Battle with over fifty letters to convince him of the prisoner's innocence." The Richmond Afro-American newspaper placed Kilpatrick on its "honor roll" for his campaign to free Rogers. In 1953, Governor Battle pardoned Rogers. (See The Press: The Case of Silas Rogers, Time Magazine, January 5, 1953, and Va. Governor Frees Once-Doomed Convict, Jet Magazine, January 8, 1953, both of which credit Kilpatrick.)
Three years after his release, Rogers went back to prison for rape. [James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation, p. 39-40 (2013)].
Though Roger’s recidivism strengthened Kilpatrick’s segregationist views (he responded to Roger’s rape by saying "Sometimes you have to learn lessons the hard way”), he was writing segregationist editorials while campaigning to free Rogers.
That a segregationist Finch would defend a black man falsely accused of rape should make him a more admirable lawyer than a civil rights lawyer who takes up his cause to further a political agenda.
Indeed, a few professors have recognized this. Anders Walker of the Saint Louis University School of Law told the National Law Journal:
“The best attorneys are the ones who can take on a client they may find repellent, but still represent them to the best of their ability. I like 'Watchman' because it suggests Finch is a great attorney — he represented Tom Robinson to the best of his ability and brought a great case. I think it's good that we find out that he didn't have much sympathy for civil rights”Similarly, Thane Rosenbaum of New York University School of Law responded that the segregationist Finch would be "the ultimate lawyer: That I'm prepared to represent you even if I don't like you." [Law Professors React to The 'Shocking' News About Atticus Finch, National Law Journal, July 27, 2015]
Unfortunately, this principled view is now a minority among the legal profession. Most lawyers imagined Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird as a man who defended a cause celebre for ideological reasons. If anything, as we have seen, Leftists like Freedman criticized Fitch for not being sufficiently ideological.
The Finch of Watchman zealously defended his client according to the law, regardless of the impact on his own ideological preferences. But now that Justice Scalia is dead, and the Left is celebrating the possibility of imposing its ideological preferences through the courts, we need hardly speculate why they have no room for Atticus Finch.
John Reid [email him] is an American citizen and a recent law school graduate.