The Racism of Atticus Finch: How Does A.C. Lee’s Real Life Illuminate ‘Go Set a Watchman’?

Atticus Finch, at least in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, is a bigot. This according to Michiko Kakutani’s incendiary review of the novel published by the New York Times on Friday. But what are the implications for Watchman? Does this reinvigorate the case against a greedy publisher who would stop at nothing to reap the cash rewards of a Mockingbird sequel? Does it suggest that Harper Lee is somehow senile, or at least out of touch with the despairing scene of 21st-century race relations? Or maybe it points to something more complex and less cynical.

In case you missed it, Kakutani’s review of Watchman reveals what the Times would later call a “bombshell,” an “explosive plot twist that no one saw coming.” (Actually, Flavorwire said as much the day before, when we warned that “Atticus may not be quite as progressive as some readers remember.”) In her review, Kakutani points out that Watchman’s Atticus Finch evolves into “a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’” In To Kill a Mockingbird, Kakutani writes, Harper Lee wants us to have compassion for “outsiders” like Boo and Tom Robinson; whereas in Watchman, she concludes, Lee “asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus.”

Is this such a surprise? It is a well-known if unofficial fact of the Lee family biography that Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper Lee’s father, held segregationist views in the 1950s, although they appear to have changed throughout that decade. By the time To Kill a Mockingbird became the darling of national book reviews, A.C. Lee considered himself an activist for the rights of Southern blacks.

Given, too, that Watchman’s press release described a Jean Louise Finch who “struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus,” it was no great leap of imagination to imagine an Atticus with disappointing or even bigoted views on race in the 1950s. And although Harper Lee was forthright from the first that there is no one-to-one relation between the character Atticus Finch and her own father, she also pointed out to the New York Herald Tribune that Atticus was like her father “in character and — the South has a good word for this — in ‘disposition.’”

Atticus Finch and A.C. Lee likewise share a crucial biographical coincidence: both defended black Southerners in cases motivated by out-and-out racism. As biographer Charles J. Shields writes in Mockingbird (2006), A.C. Lee, who was an “inexperienced 29-year old attorney with only four years of practice under his belt,” defended “two Negroes accused of murder.” After he lost the trial, Lee never tried another criminal case.

Perhaps Watchman will reveal an Atticus wrought with ambivalence over the failure of a trial — the Kakutani review doesn’t explain either way. But it could just as well have been modeled on the views of A.C. Lee throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. Or, as Shields explains, it’s “[w]orth pointing out… that Mr. Lee himself only gradually rose to the moral standards of Atticus. Though more enlightened than most, A.C. was no saint, no prophet crying in the wilderness with regard to racial matters.”

In fact, A.C. Lee used the Bible to justify segregationist beliefs. And he bumped heads with one Reverend Whatley, a Methodist minister who preached about racial and social justice, and fought for equal protection for blacks under the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) — which Lee opposed on the grounds that it would “take away from every employer in this United States the right to choose his employees.” In a backroom meeting with Whatley, Lee apparently told him to “Get off the ‘social justice’ and get back on the gospel.” In 1955, Shields writes, Whatley was elected president of the Montgomery chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations. His vice president was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then 26 years old.

Over the years, according to Shields, A.C. Lee “changed his views about race relations.” It’s important to remind readers that Go Set a Watchman was written in the mid-1950s, just as these views were changing. This, along with editorial impositions by Harper Lee’s editor and publisher — may account for the rosier view of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. As Shields explains, “Nelle watched as her father, formerly a conservative on matters of race and social progress, became an advocate for the rights of Negroes.”

But what prompted A.C. Lee’s evolution from a segregationist to a defender of black rights? Beyond the upbuilding racist violence on the part of Southern whites, Shields hints that the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird may have brought about a change in A.C. Lee. “By the time To Kill a Mockingbird was published,” Shields writes, “A.C. counted himself an activist in defending the civil rights of Negroes.” He continues:

In 1962, while a reporter was interviewing Nelle at her home in Monroeville, Alice and A.C. stopped by on their way to the offices of Bugg, Barnett & Lee. The 81-year-old A.C. interrupted to speak earnestly about the importance of reapportioning voting districts to provide fairer representation for Negro voters. “It’s got to be done,” he said.

But the most revealing clue about A.C. Lee’s evolution may rest with Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s older sister. An attorney by training who worked at her father’s firm, Alice’s views on race were more progressive than her father’s. According to Reverend Butts, a lifelong friend of the Lee family, Alice had made herself “the enemy of racists” by intervening in parliamentary matters at a conference for a Methodist church presided over by segregationists.

Unlike Nelle Harper — who had absconded to New York City, who drank and lived a bohemian life — Alice remained in Monroeville and cared for her father during her sister’s absence. Shields’ unofficial biography suggest that it was Alice’s influence — in conjunction with the increasing intensity of the Civil Rights Movement and the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird itself — that helped A.C. overcome his racist beliefs.

Alice Lee’s lifelong investment in her father’s reputation — as law partner and caretaker — may also explain why Harper Lee forestalled publication of Go Set a Watchman until after her death in late 2014. And it supports the publisher’s claim that To Kill a Mockingbird and Watchman were part of an intended trilogy that would eventually feature a shorter novel connecting the two. With Mockingbird’s idealizations of childhood obliterated by Watchman’s alienation of adulthood, perhaps Harper Lee — who wanted her first novel to “make her father proud of her choice to become a writer” — was looking for something in between.