Malcom Gladwell in The New Yorker, ‘The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of southern liberalism’. Warning, The New Yorker puts up a subscription firewall to stories after a couple of weeks.
Gladwell takes a good look at the political context of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a widely read novel often set at school (in Britain as well as the USA) and known to many as a film starring Gregory Peck (all of the below comes from me rather than Gladwell, except where he is explicitly referenced). The title of his essay refers to the extreme localism of Alabama politics, where elected positions, including judges, were decided by local cliques ‘courthouse rings’. The novel is a partly autobiographical account of life in a small town in segregation era Alabama. A young girl known as Scout narrates the story which focuses on her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch and his defence of an African-American falsely accused of raping a white woman. The name is a reference to Titus Pomponious Atticus, friend of the Ancient Roman Republican philosopher, politician and orator, and who appears in Cicero’s correspondence. A link is made with a history of resisting tyranny in the name of reason, Cicero was an opponent of Julius Caesar and was murdered by Caesar’s supporters after Caesar’s assassination as a tyrant.
Gladwell brings Atticus Finch’s noble status into question, by comparison with Big Jim Folsom, governor of Alabama in the 40s and 50s. Folsom was a progressive who behaved respectfully towards African-Americans, and supported very gradual moderate measures to end racial inequality. As Gladwell points out, Folsom never came close to demanding a complete end to segregation and discrimination. Desegregation became an issue after 1954 with the Federal Supreme Court’s judgement in the Brown-Topeka case which declared segregated schooling to be unconstitutional. What Gladwell does not mention is that President Truman had already desegregated public employment, setting off severe tensions within the Democratic Party, which dominated white votes in the South (as a reaction against Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President). Anyway, the Brown-Topeka case heightened those tensions, the Democratic Party was pushed further towards a clear choice and became associated with Civil Rights (i.e. federally enforced racial equality throughout the 50 states). Folsom and others like him were squeezed out, he could not support complete desegregation but could not turn to explicit racism and white supremacism. Previously marginalised hard core segregationists benefited in the short term, and some southern white voters clearly still have not forgiven the Democratic Party.
The earlier equivocation of Democratic Party progressives on race is commemorated in the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, where Spencer Tracy plays a ‘fighting liberal’ with a picture of F.D. Roosevelt on his wall, who finds it difficult to accept that his daughter is marring an African-American (played by Sidney Poitier). This scenario indirectly refers to the valuable support Roosevelt had among frequently racist poor southern whites for left leaning economic policies ; and the more polite disguised racism in other parts of the country, with which progressives/liberals were often more or less complicit. Indeed the earlier progressive Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson was a fervent ‘segregationist’ (euphemism for racial discrimination, including denial of political rights).
Getting back to Gladwell’s comments on the novel, he sees Finch as equivalent to Fulsom, in politics, In personality though, Fulsom was the opposite of the reserved, self-disciplined and quietly decent Finch. Just as Fulsom behaved decently as an individual to African-Americans and resisted the most obvious and extreme kinds of justice, Finch defends Tom Robinson, the African-American, in court and personally guards Tom Robinson’s jail against a would-be lynch mob. The white jury still convicts Tom, and he is shot trying to escape prison before an appeal to the state court can be launched.
One thing Gladwell points out is that African-American were not always convicted of rape white women when such a case was brought in the Old South. Sometimes this was because a lynch mob had already used socially sanctioned illegal violence, but this was not always the case at all. A significant proportion of cases resulted in acquittal or a rather short sentence for such a serious crime. The point here is not that the courts of the Old South were lacking in racial bias, but that other forms of discrimination were of importance and could outweigh racism.
Gladwell points out that the case in To Kill a Mockingbird is a very good example of the kind of case, where a southern court might have unjustly acquitted an African-American. The woman who brings the complaint is an obvious example of ‘white trash’, uneducated poor whites. Mayella Ewell, and her father Jason, (Faulkner called a white racist character Jason Compson) are extreme examples of what used to be called the ‘undeserving poor’, low income people apparently lacking in a work ethic, or any kind of moral standards, or standards or behaviour of any kind. Mayella is supposed to have spent a year saving money so that she get send the kids out of the house for treats, and then lure Tom in and sexually harass him. As Gladwell points out, it’s a bizarrely implausible scenario. Surely, if she was such a slave to her sexual urges, and as intellectually limited as portrayed, she would have done something much more impulsive much earlier with Tom, or someone.
What we see in Atticus’ speech, and therefore in the manifest message of the novel (right now I would not like to exclude the possibility of a different latent message) is a picture of a low- class, low-morality white woman whom we know to be low and to be trash, because she is so desperate to have sex with an African-American. The speech also includes the implication that Jason Ewell sexually abuses his daughter; Gladwell suggests we think about that in relation to the popularity of ‘eugenics’ at that time in that region.
This is ‘eugenics’ in the sense of believing that some people are genetically degenerate and should be forcefully sterilised, something practised by various states, (not just in the South) until 1963 with regard to psychiatric patients. It’s not likely to be an accident that it was banned at the same time as the Civil Rights campaign. Targets of ‘eugenics’ tended to be poor, and the issue was very clearly linked with, and justified by, ideas of racial degeneracy and the relative superiority/inferiority of different races; and ideas that incest is linked with genetic degeneracy. The latter idea has some truth, but of course that should not justify compulsory sterilisation.
Southern courts were willing to believe an African-American before a white woman in a rape case, where she was ‘white trash’, where she was the kind of person who might be considered fit for compulsory sterilisation on ‘eugenic’ grounds. As Gladwell points out, though Atticus’ defence speech is often referred to as some kind of masterpiece, it’s really rather weak and dependent on trying to prejudice the jury by casting the woman and her father as degenerate.
We might well think Atticus was justified in using whatever means to get his innocent client acquitted, but the way the scenario is set up is not in accordance with the heroic anti-discrimination stance associated with the character and the book. Like Big Jim, Atticus behaves decently to everyone, but cannot bring himself to demand an end to injustice, and show his anger at injustice to the majority respectable white racists in the town. Only against racially degenerate white trash. Maybe he should be less decent to the enforcers of racism.
And there’s more as Gladwell explains. The novel features a mysterious secluded, apparently disturbed boy, who spends the summers next door to the Finches, Boo Radley (apparently based on the young Truman Capote), After the trial, Jason Ewell comes to the Finch house to kill Atticus, but is first killed by Boo. Atticus decides to cover up the crime, which could be seen as protecting a vulnerable boy; but come on really, what is a lawyer doing covering up murder? And what’s so benevolent about protecting a middle class boy who killed white trash? Isn’t that just the kind of lynch mob ‘justice’ suffered by African-Americans?
The reason Gladwell has for referring to ‘courthouse rings’ in his title, is to emphasise that Alabama was a society of small towns were everything was about who you know locally, and what you think about them in a personal way. The idea that everything can be sorted out within the local community is challenged by the injustice to Tom Robinson, but is then reaffirmed by the decision to conceal Radley’s crime, which is a kind of eugenic sterilisation. If we plumb further into the depths of the novel, we might note that Scout is very attached to her widowed father, and therefore possibly sees a grotesque parallel for herself in Mayella. There is certainly absolutely no suggestion of Atticus abusing his daughter, but we do see some fears and anxieties being projected onto the Ewells, increasing our disgust for them.
I read the novel at school for exams at 14 which irritated me, as it seemed too much a choice of a book ‘for children’ and it irritated me beyond that, which has made me guilty. Why dislike a novel and a character, apparently so full of pure and heroic decency? Now I know why. It might now be really interesting to read the novel again, though, for all the unacknowledged anxieties and complicity; rather more interesting than the novel of minimal anti-racist plastic heroism in a thoroughly one dimensional character.