In South Carolina, politicians are forced to recognize the Confederate flag for what it is, an icon of white supremacy and racism.
And in the literary world, fans of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are scandalized that Lee now reveals the heroic Atticus Finch as a racist segregationist.
The New York Times reports:
“Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, Go Set a Watchman, Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’”
We all have lawyer acquaintances who were inspired by the earlier Atticus to become attorneys. My heart breaks for them.
At the same time, I wonder if the Atticus of Watchman, which takes place in the 1950s civil rights era, is all that different from millions of righteous white southerners of the era. I have known quite a few decent, caring people who thought like Atticus.
In the early 1960s, one of my mentors when I was an Air Force chaplain’s assistant at RAF Station Bentwaters/Woodbridge in England was a Southern Baptist chaplain from Arlington, Va. He was soft-spoken and kind. He treated everyone with respect, regardless of race, age, or gender (or, I might add, their military rank). He stood up for African American airmen when they were mistreated in the barracks. He was horrified by the mistreatment of blacks in the south.
I regarded him as a model of Christian decency and propriety. And yet, in retrospect, I’m sure that in 1967, he thought a lot like the latter day Atticus. Like most of us in this era (of course I include myself), it was difficult for even the most righteous to gauge the true depth of our racism. Racism was so deeply entrenched in our culture, north and south, that we lost the ability to recognize it for what it is.
The armed forces of the United States were integrated in 1948, and by the mid-sixties blacks and whites lived in the same barracks, reported to the same duty sections, ate in the same mess hall, and worshipped side by side in the same chapel.
But it wasn’t easy. Many of my white friends would wait until a black airman had left the room and launch a vicious verbal attack. “Ain’t that just like a lazy, stupid n—–?” they’d complain, expecting I would agree with them. I didn’t have the courage to protest, and I told myself that if things got out of hand, the chaplain would intervene. *
The chaplain and his family rotated back to the states six months before I did, and when my tour was up I arranged to visit him at his new station, Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C.
I stopped by to see the chaplain and his family in February 1968 before reporting to my new assignment at McConnell Air Force Base, Kans. The first thing the chaplain did was take me to Sunday services at a small white Southern Baptist Church near Sumter. The visit was memorable, for me, because the pastor – also white – kept punctuating his sermons with “wise words” from “an old n—– preacher.” He used an exaggerated Joel Chandler Harris accent to complete the effect.
Perhaps he was making the point that wise sayings are not racially exclusive, but I told the chaplain I was shocked to hear the ‘n’ word used from a pulpit.
“Aw, everyone uses it here, both colored people and white people,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
The next day, the chaplain and I decided to take a trip from Sumter to Charleston, where a mutual friend Bentwaters/Woodbridge was waiting to take us to lunch. We invited a staff sergeant friend of the chaplain’s to join us and hopped into a cavernous Chevy wagon for the three-hour drive to Charleston.
Even in February, the South Carolina countryside was beautiful and the chaplain and I began telling the sergeant diverting tales of our last assignment in rural England. After about an hour, the car engine began to gasp and the chaplain pulled off the road.
“Out of gas,” he said. We were in the middle of nowhere, a long way between Sumter and Charleston.
“I have an old gas can in the back,” the chaplain said. “When was the last time we passed a gas station?”
“I think there was one back there,” the sergeant said, gesturing down the long road we had just traveled.
The chaplain got out of the car to retrieve the gas can and handed it to me. Military life simplifies many decisions, and the fact that both my companions outranked me made it obvious that I would volunteer to buy the gas.
“Wait here,” I said, stressing the irony. And I took the can to the side of the road and stuck out my thumb.
Even in bucolic South Carolina in the sixties, a hitchhiking stranger was suspicious and several speeding cars ignored my honest white face.
Finally, a beige Lincoln Continental pulled over. The driver was a large, middle-aged white man wearing a crisp blue blazer and a Stetson hat like Harry Truman’s. The man was smoking a Winston cigarette, which was not unusual in South Carolina in 1968.
“Where to, Son?” the man asked, stifling a wheeze.
“Ran out of gas,” I said. “Can you take me to the nearest gas station?”
“Hop in,” he said. The man tossed his Winston out the window and pressed his dashboard lighter against another one.
“We see a lot of GIs in these parts,” he said, although I was in civilian clothes and had not mentioned I was an airman. I sat quietly as he reminisced between drags on his cigarette and raspy wheezes about his own service in Texas during the Second World War.
“Never fired a goddamn shot,” he said.
As his anecdotes unfolded, I noticed a gas station ahead and was a little surprised when he passed it. Trying to keep the conversation going, I told him why I was in South Carolina and where I was headed. He nodded attentively and sped passed a second gas station on the right hand side. I rustled the gas can in my lap to remind him of my mission.
When we surged past a third gas station I pointed it out to him. The man coughed wetly and tossed another cigarette out the window. “Yeh,” he said. “Well, shit, Son, those is n—– garages.”
Obviously, he intended the explanation to suffice. A full cigarette later, he pulled into a gas station that had his approval and I jumped out.
I filled the tank and went back to the road to stick out my thumb. Immediately, a battered pick-up pulled over and I jumped in. The driver was a black man wearing a cloth cap and overalls.
“Thanks for stopping, Sir,” I said. “My car is down the road a few miles.”
The man nodded and the transmission grated loudly as he put the truck in gear. He didn’t say much, but he smiled when we passed the first gas station that I had obviously spurned.
When we passed the second, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. When we passed the third, I feigned good humor and said, “Almost there.”
“Yes, Sir,” the driver drawled.
When we pulled up to the stranded car, the chaplain and sergeant were engaged in quiet conversation. They didn’t notice the driver of the truck who had delivered their gas to them.
“Let me give you something for your trouble,” I told the driver as I fumbled for my wallet.” “No, Sir,” the driver said, adding inscrutably, “Angels unawares. Angels unawares.” And the truck’s muffler popped loudly as he eased onto the highway.
I told the chaplain and the sergeant what had happened, but they soon lost interest in my account and changed the subject.
It was my first encounter with the Jim Crow south, and it stayed on my mind all my life.
I have also never forgotten the chaplain who met so much to me when I was young and considering what Southern Baptists call “full time Christian service” as a career.
In many ways, he was a perfect embodiment of Jesus, a devoted Christian who tried to love God and to love all his neighbors, regardless of race, as he loved himself.
But, perhaps like Atticus Finch as Harper Lee saw him in his later years, he was so immersed in the racist culture in which he lived that he lost the ability to see it clearly.
This, of course, is not unique to the American South. It’s a condition of growing up in the United States, and it affects us all. And as we watch Atticus develop in the subsequent chapters of Harper Lee’s new novel, I hope we will not be so quick to condemn him with our righteous disappointment.
Atticus is, after all, a mirror image of most of us: a good and righteous person struggling to discover the human truths that are hidden in the dense fog of our upbringing. And who can condemn him for that?
* Another figure who made white airman hesitate to express their racism on Bentwaters/Woodbridge was the vice wing commander, Colonel Daniel N. “Chappy” James, a charismatic but physically intimidating giant of a man. James went on to become the first black 4-star general in the Air Force.