Atticus Finch Offers a Lesson in Southern Politics

tags: Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch

Joseph Crespino is a professor of American history at Emory and the author of “Strom Thurmond’s America.”

“Go Set a Watchman,” released to much fanfare this week, may have been an apprentice work for Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but, in a way, the earlier book seems more sophisticated. It offers a subtle and surprising exploration of racial politics, and not merely because of the racist comments of Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved figures in American literature.

As a guide to the complexities of Southern politics, and to the political transition of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party — a shift that has remade American political life over the last half-century — “Watchman” is actually a more revealing source than Ms. Lee’s celebrated novel.

How is it possible that the fair-minded Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” could also be the embittered racist depicted in the newly published “Go Set a Watchman”?

It’s not just the story of a daughter’s changing perspective. Southern political history is full of figures who evolved along similar lines. One of the best examples is Strom Thurmond, the longtime senator from South Carolina. Thurmond was a committed New Deal Democrat in the 1930s as a state legislator. As governor in the late 1940s, he advocated for the repeal of the poll tax and called in the F.B.I. to investigate a lynching in his state.

Yet in 1948, in an effort to position himself for a Senate run two years later, Thurmond thrust himself to the front of the reactionary forces that organized a third-party campaign in protest of the national party’s civil rights policies. Throughout the 1950s, Thurmond led white Southerners’ widespread resistance to civil rights, organizing the 1956 Southern Manifesto, a denunciation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and pulling off a one-man, 24-hour filibuster of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. ...

Read entire article at NYT

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