Atticus Finch – the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s 'To Kill A Mockingbird' – is a legal icon. The legendary status of Finch is confirmed by his standing in the non-legal world of broader culture. In 2003, the renowned American Film Institute deemed Atticus the greatest movie hero of all-time. That a lawyer would be worthy of this honor is nothing short of remarkable and demonstrates that the stature of Atticus Finch has assumed mythic proportions in American culture. Atticus is not just a lawyer; he is justice in the flesh.
Enter best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. Last year, Gladwell made waves in The New Yorker by arguing that, far from being a bright spot of racial enlightenment in a time of darkness, Atticus Finch instead made an immoral peace with the world of Jim Crow Alabama. While Gladwell is not the first to criticize the Atticus myth, he is the most culturally influential person to do so, which is an important development. The Atticus-As-Racial-Accommodator charge essentially posits that Atticus was all-too-comfortable with the racism (and racists) that surrounded him every day. Gladwell wonders: Where is the moral outrage? In response, I argue that Gladwell misdiagnoses Atticus because he neglects the important role that Finch’s Christian faith plays in who he is as a person. To understand Atticus, one must first understand Jesus and his teaching. Finch is a New Testament-style prophet whose worldview propels him to this truth: Love and understanding open doors; judgment and condemnation close them. Consequently, his quiet and gentlemanly interactions with the racists in his midst suggest neither passivity nor appeasement, as Gladwell contends. Instead, they are a form of character and strength – derived from Finch’s faith in Jesus – that imbue Atticus with moral authority in the eyes of the community. Moreover, while Gladwell rightly stresses the need of legal change in bringing equality to the South, the kind of moral change led by Finch was likewise necessary. Law is only half of the equation.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird. Combined with the cultural significance of Gladwell’s recent revisionist foray, this milestone means that now is a particularly apt time to look at Atticus with fresh eyes and assess his character anew.
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