In connection with the release of the Harper Lee sequel to “ To Kill a Mockingbird,” Malcolm Gladwell tweeted about a New Yorker article, “The Courthouse Ring,” that he had written years ago which compared Atticus Finch to Alabama Governor Big Jim Folsom. I thought this was interesting because I vaguely remember Big Jim Folsom being governor, probably during his second term from 1955 to 1959. The main impression I have of him, no doubt from my parents, was that he was corrupt, a guy who promised anything to anybody.
Gladwell’s criticism of Folsom and Finch is that they favored fairness and equality for blacks, but on a separate but equal basis, rather than abolishing any separation between the races. Gladwell’s position seems to be that instead of planning to appeal the conviction of his client, Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch should have raged against the judge and jury for being racists, although it’s not clear how that would have freed Tom.
There is something to be said for working honestly within the law. When Tom is lynched, it’s because the law was violated. Atticus tried to encourage obedience to the law, rather than rebelling against it, unlike the lynch mob. Big Jim Folsom probably did little to improve race relations in Alabama, but perhaps he helped some. His problem was that he was corrupt and thus did little to gain respect for other aspects of his governorship, like improving race relations. People just wrote it off as some cheap political trick to get votes. Atticus was an entirely different kind of man, a man of honorable character who was respected by the community.
A lot has been made of the fact that Harper Lee’s father was less of a reformer of race relations than people thought before the new book came out. But I think Atticus should be judged in the fictional world created by Harper Lee, not by some real world person on whom he may or may not have been modelled. As a half-black man, Malcolm Gladwell is obviously carrying a lot of hatred and resentment against white Americans. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t mean that American policies on race should be driven by hatred and rate. Atticus’ quiet decency is a better model.