There is no moral defense for the oppression of blacks during the South's Jim Crow era. No moral defense for the slavery that lay at the root of it. Every Southerner knows that. And during the African-Americans' push for equal rights in the mid-20th century, there was no moral justification to oppose them.
But Atticus Finch had his reasons for standing in their way. And how betrayed we've felt as a nation since Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" hit the bookshelves.
Yet as a white Southerner who had a front row seat to the turmoil of the Civil Rights era, I see the book as the author's effort to lay out every plausible reason for the South's resistance to change, to acquaint the reader with the painful, conflicted feelings of a South in transition, and then to come down hard on the side of justice. Atticus was a necessary casualty of that effort.
My dad was a newspaper editor in Albany during the Civil Rights upheavals of the 1960s. A Mississippi-born Southerner, he brought a surprisingly even hand and cool head to the events unfolding in our streets. He never commented at the dinner table on the implication of the protest marches, but I suspect that his dominant reaction to the unrest was a quiet unease.
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I doubt that anyone who did not live in the South during the Civil Rights era can offer a credible assessment of the character of Atticus Finch. Though there were racist bigots abroad, exploiting the situation to unleash their hatred, Atticus Finch was not one of them, nor was my dad, nor was any other Southerner, black or white, of compassion and decency.
It was a time of convulsive upheaval, pointing toward a future whose shape could not be imagined. A good man of any race, shot through with fear for his family, his community, is a complexity not to be judged too quickly, nor too harshly.
Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout of "To Kill a Mockingbird," responded violently to Atticus' resistance to the integration of "the backward people" into white society. She represents not only the conscience of all humanity, but the redeeming core of Atticus' character when he stepped up to defend the black Tom Robinson in "Mockingbird."
Near the end of their confrontation, Jean-Louise speaks her heart.
"Atticus, the time has come when we've got to do right."
"Yes sir. Give 'em a chance."
It was a start, and we've come a long way since Harper Lee penned "Go Set a Watchman." But imperfect humans that we are, susceptible to fearing "the other," we do well to remain vigilant, giving each other a chance, one encounter at a time.