An Old, Racist Atticus Finch Seems about Right

Maybe because I have spent a lot of time as a reporter writing about our own racial history in Dallas, the great angst over Watchman seems goofy to me. First of all, we must remind ourselves that these are not real people. This is about some made-up stories that a lady wrote for money.

As you know by now, the big anxiety about Harper Lee’s new book, Go set a Watchman, is that Atticus Finch, the racial justice-seeking hero of her earlier best-selling novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become in this second telling an old racist white guy. The new novel was fabricated from an unedited first-draft partial manuscript found by a lawyer who keeps changing her story about how the pages were discovered and why they are being published as a novel. 

And there you have it. That’s some kind of literary debate — the sort of thing I know enough to stay pretty far away from, kind of like disputes about the design of racing yachts.

But let’s pretend. Now that we have made ourselves remember that Atticus Finch is a made-up guy, let’s pretend he’s real. How stunning would it be to discover that a man who rose to moral heroism at a point in his life devolved later into grouchy old-age racism?

C'mon. We don’t have to wait a lifetime to find the disappointing part about most of our real-life moral heroes. Usually when we white people are heroes about race, you only have to wait about a week.

In my 1986 book, The Accommodation, about the racial history of Dallas, I wrote about a group called LEAD, formed in 1965 to promote school reform. In revisiting my own book yesterday, I discovered that the author had neglected to say what that name, presumably an acronym, stood for. What an idiot.

LEAD was a white group, dominated by people from Texas Instruments, Temple Emmanuel, the progressive wing of the Methodist Church and other quasi-liberals of their time. They helped elect the city’s first black school board member, Dr. Emmett Conrad.

Just to give you some flavor of the times, the city’s major black leadership group at the time, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, opposed Conrad because the organization did not believe black people were “ready yet” for leadership in mixed-race educational institutions.
When I was researching my book in 1985, Dr. Norman Kaplan, who had been head of LEAD 20 years earlier, told me the group really didn’t believe in integration much but needed black help at the polls in electing its own slate of white school board members. “The blacks were used mainly for their votes,” Dr. Conrad told me.

And what happened? After a few bumps and misses, Conrad got elected to the school board. The city — black people, white people, Latino people — everybody together witnessed the presence and performance of a thoughtful intelligent black person on the school board. Everybody moved ahead 10 spots in the race game.

We humans tend to be very messy, if you hadn’t noticed, and very mixed in terms of character. The hero, after all, is a literary and cinematic convention designed to sell books and theater tickets. Actually I’m told in the movie business they make the money from the popcorn.

Transforming a real-life person to a literary hero requires its own brand of violence to the truth. Steven Spielberg and his writers flat made up a lot of stuff about Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist credited with saving Jews from the Nazis. In putting together Spielberg’s wonderful 1993 movie, Schindler’s List,  Spielberg and his writers transformed Schindler from a morally messy drunk guy who rose to greatness in fits and starts to the kind of tinfoil saint who could carry a strong screenplay.

By the way, he didn’t have a list. By the way, there was at least one screenwriter, a former journalist, who worked for years on the screenplay for List, then quit for reasons I have never heard publicly stated but can guess.

And yet Schindler saved Jews. Compare him with Hitler’s willing executioners, the masses of ordinary Germans who pitched in enthusiastically to help kill Jews. What do you want? Of those two choices, I know which one I’d pick for real-life heroism.

We know all this stuff here in our own city. My own metaphor for racial progress is a newspaper picnic softball game on a really rainy day —  full of foul balls and errors, genius plays, cheating (of both the baseball and romantic varieties, sometimes combined), generosity, way too much beer and an amount of mud that finally becomes glorious.

So of course Atticus Finch would have become a grouchy old racist white guy. So what? Drop in on any decent nursing home in North Dallas and ask the staff, “Have you ever heard of pretty decent liberal white people who reverted to crazy-sounding crabby-nattering racism in their dotage?”

Second thought, don’t. They may not let you leave.

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