Dispatch New Mexico: Harper Lee’s book highlights ‘gradualism’ and its flaws

Earlier this year, I wrote about the latest manuscript written by Harper Lee, author of the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” saying I was both excited and anxious about reading “Go Set a Watchman” since one of the central characters, Atticus Finch, reminded me of my own father.

I wasn’t too excited about tarnishing the heroic deeds of either man, but I knew I’d feel compelled to read the book anyway. And now I have.

But before I get into my assessment of the book, here’s some background: My father was a white Southern minister who stood up against the racism of his day. His collision within the church he loved and served was but a minor skirmish compared to the larger Civil Rights Movement of that time, but the way he stood up to the segregationists left an indelible mark on a number of lives, including mine.

“Watchman” did nothing to offset my admiration for my father, but it did knock the fictional Atticus of “Mockingbird” fame down a great big notch or two.

As literature, there’s an unusual turn in how these two books came to be: Lee first wrote “Watchman”—about a 72-year-old Atticus and a 20-something “Scout” (called by her given name Jean Louise as an adult) and the racial tensions of the 1950s and 60s—but it was never published, until this year. About a half-century ago, Lee’s “Watchman” manuscript was rejected by her publisher, so Lee backed its central characters up about two decades, to a time when small-town Alabama attorney Atticus Finch was defending an innocent black man against the charge of raping a white girl, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” was born.

Literary reviews have mostly panned the “Watchman” novel as little more than a “first draft” en route to a classic, and indeed it is, but I found it historically insightful nevertheless, as it’s applicable to the realities of those times.

Being a born-and-bred Southerner, I can attest to the fact that back in those days, when the Civil Rights Movement was in its heyday, some upstanding whites were brutal segregationists (my grandfather was one), while others (like my father) were heroic in their efforts to advance the cause of race equality. But I also know there were other Southerners, often well intentioned, who wanted progress to move at a slower pace.

They were the “gradualists” of their day. They believed in a slower, more measured approach to racial integration. Even Orval Faubus, who was governor of my home state of Arkansas when he ignited the Little Rock Central High crisis of 1957, considered himself a gradualist.

For a while, his was the prevailing view. Integration, many Southern whites thought, was something to move slowly and carefully toward. Even some black Southerners felt that way during those dangerous times.

Of course, one problem with gradualism is that it is often overtaken by events, and that’s what happened back then. The Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which struck down the “separate but equal” argument for segregation, and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement forced gradualists to take one side or the other. Those who sided with the segregationists, like Faubus, have been relegated to the dung heap of history, while former gradualists who sided with the integrationists are now among our heroes. The now-closed Arkansas Gazette, for example, won a Pulitzer Prize for its courageous stand against Faubus in 1957, but history has dimmed the fact that the newspaper was initially supportive of gradual school integration. Even the effort to integrate Little Rock Central started with only nine black students; the school board felt it was best to ease into it.

That’s gradualism, and it played a significant role in Southern desegregation.

In “Go Set a Watchman,” Atticus Finch, as a member of the (white) Citizens Council, was more of a gradualist then a fire-breathing racist, while his daughter Jean Louise “Scout” Finch was far more aggressive in her views. That’s really what happened, as an antiquated, Old South way of thinking gave way to the more modern, New South view of what’s right and just.

That’s also what happened in my family, when my parents broke away from the prejudices of their beloved parents. For me, “Watchman” was well worth the read. Atticus Finch is portrayed as a man of his times. He was both a victim of and a villain to the events that overtook his fictional life, as were many, if not most, of the real-life Southerners during those days.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and works at the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com or tmcdonald@rdrnews.com, or by calling 575-622-7710.