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Atticus Finch, Critical Race Theory, and Scout's Search for Justice

Teaching Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird—which Oprah Winfrey has called "our national novel"—has been a fraught endeavor in the past decade. What was once a staple of American middle and high schools for highlighting Atticus Finch's moral stand against racism and injustice has become a political lightning rod on both the right and left.

One of the arguments on the left is that Harper Lee tells the story of racism in the segregated South from the perspective of Scout, a privileged young white girl, and does not give a voice to any of her Black characters—such as Calpurnia and Tom Robinson—who are the victims of that racism. Instead, these Black characters are merely background players in a young white girl's "search for justice" without providing any perspective on what it means to be Black in such an unjust environment.

When we teach the novel at Literary Focus, we attempt to provide a Black perspective on racism in American society at the beginning of the unit by comparing and contrasting Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" (1850) with Langston Hughes' "I, Too" (1926) as part of our AP Poetry Analysis that has students analyze a poem or poems that are related thematically to the major work:

By beginning the unit comparing Whitman's idealistic vision of America as a joyous place where everyone is "singing what belongs to him or her and to none else" with Hughes' contention that there has been one group omitted from the group ensemble (i.e. "the darker brother"), students understand that there are competing perspectives concerning the unity and cohesion of American society. Critics of Lee's novel contend that she espouses a more tolerant, inclusive nation that lives up to its founding ideals, but she does not allow those voices that condemn the injustices of the present society to be heard from the Black perspective, only from Atticus' and Miss Maudie's.

To focus on that Black perspective within the novel, we closely examine the actions, words, and attitude of Lula, a minor character who objects to Calpurnia's bringing Jem and Scout to the Black church in Maycomb when Atticus is out of town. We use Lula's character to introduce the competing philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the two leading Civil Rights' activists who would have been best known in the time that Lee wrote her novel:

We discuss Malcolm X's often misunderstood belief in pursuing lawful, democratic processes to take economic and political control of majority-Black communities by analyzing excerpts from his 1964 speech "The Ballot or the Bullet" and comparing it to the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., who promoted integration in his famous 1963 speech "I Have a Dream." Most importantly, we look at the significance of Lee's negative depiction of Lula, who shares Malcolm X's separatist philosophy and is described as "contentious" and a "troublemaker" who has "fancy ideas an' haughty ways." We then compare Lula's description with Calpurnia, Reverend Sykes, and Zeebo, who welcome Scout and Jem and seem to favor King's integrationist approach to achieve racial reconciliation. The question we want students to consider is which approach they would have espoused had they been Black and lived during the post-Depression rural South of Lee's novel or during the Civil Rights era in which Lee wrote her novel.

Another criticism of Lee's novel is that Atticus Finch is glorified as a "white savior" on whom the Black characters are dependent for their salvation. Fortunately, Harper Lee helps disprove our reading Atticus in this way by her publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015, which has an adult Scout return to Maycomb from New York City to visit her father as an old man, only to discover that he has become—as Michiko Kakutani notes in her book review in The New York Times—a bitter, disillusioned man who has "abhorrent views on race and segregation." Scout discovers that her elderly father has attended Klan meetings, disavows the goals of the NAACP, and fears an integrated society, asking Scout, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

Using Lee's vision of Atticus in Go Set a Watchman as a sign of who he really is at his core, we begin the novel primed to closely investigate Atticus' words and actions in To Kill a Mockingbird to see if the seeds of his latent racism have already been planted. We frame the unit around the 2011 AP Literary Argument prompt that asks students to consider how a character "responds in some significant way to justice or injustice" and to examine "the degree to which the character's search for justice is successful:

Instead of focusing on Atticus' search for justice, however, we spend our time analyzing the novel's narrator, Scout, and how her understanding of "justice" evolves over the course of the novel. For instance, when Atticus tries to explain to Scout why she has to go to school whereas Burris Ewell does not, he says that Maycomb County "judiciously allowed" the Ewells "certain privileges," meaning that they did not have to obey the same laws that "the common folk" had to follow. Scout responds by saying, "Atticus, that's bad." Her simplistic understanding is that the laws are meant to apply to all people equally. It is at this point that we introduce the concepts of equality, equity, and justice:

Even though Scout initially believes in the idea of equality, Atticus convinces her that exceptions to the rules sometimes need to be made. According to Atticus' logic, it would be "silly" to force Burris Ewell to go to school when he hasn't shown "the faintest symptom of wanting an education." Similarly, Atticus believes that Bob Ewell will "never change his ways"—regardless of the laws—and in order to protect the Ewell children, Atticus says that no one in Maycomb County "begrudges those children any game their father can hit."

At this point, our discussion is whether Atticus' argument—no matter how logical—is in the best interest of society. Should the law only apply to certain people and not others based on their circumstances and backgrounds? More importantly, as far as literary analysis is concerned, is how Harper Lee wants us to feel about Maycomb County's determination to be "blind to some of the Ewells' activities." Even though Scout initially believes in the concept of equality for all, Atticus convinces her that there is perhaps a more equitable solution and that different rules should apply to different people. As Atticus concludes, "Sometimes it's better to bend the law a little in special cases."

Even though most students believe that the town's exceptions for the Ewells are reasonable and in the best interest of the Ewell children, they are often divided about whether they think these exceptions to the rules are an example of "justice" being served in Maycomb Country. Many students feel that the Ewells have been given an "unjust" reward for willfully ignoring the laws that everyone else has to follow. Others argue that the county should not have to assume responsibility for the Ewells' situation and have no obligation to bail them out by allowing them to break laws or to provide them with "relief checks" that Bob Ewell ends up using to buy "green whiskey."

Harper Lee creates this attitude in the reader through her negative depiction of the Ewells, especially when compared to the Cunninghams—another white family who is equally poor and uneducated as the Ewells. For instance, when Walter Cunningham, Jr., comes to the first day of school, he is wearing no shoes and shows obvious signs of hookworm, but he also demonstrates pride in his appearance and a desire to be seen as respectable with his "clean shirt and neatly mended overalls." In comparison, Scout describes Burris Ewell as "the filthiest human I had ever seen" with a neck that was "dark gray," the backs of his hands "rusty," and fingernails that were "black deep into the quick."

In comparison to the Ewells, who are described by Atticus as "the disgrace of Maycomb County for three generations," the Cunninghams are described by Scout as simple "country folk" who never "took anything they can't pay back—no church baskets, and no scrip stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don't have much, but they get along on it." It is clear that Lee wants us to admire the Cunninghams for their integrity, self-reliance, and industry—whereas we are meant to feel scorn for the Ewells who Atticus claims had never "done an honest day's work in his recollection."

Harper Lee suggests that any misfortune that befalls the Ewells in the story will be an example of "justice" being served, and there is only so much a society can do to promote equality. As Atticus notes about the Ewells' refusal to attend school, "They can go to school any time they want to, when they show the faintest symptom of wanting an education." In other words, all Maycomb can do is provide equal opportunity for its inhabitants, but they cannot produce equal motivation or equal results, which is one of the stated goals of equity. As Atticus pontificates in his closing statement at Tom Robinson's trial, "We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men."

When Atticus tells Jem and Scout that the Ewells "lived like animals" behind the town garbage dump "in what was once a Negro cabin," we are left with the impression that this is a deliberate choice that the Ewells have made, robbing us of having any deep sympathy for them. Atticus says that after the Ewells "gave the dump a thorough gleaning every day, and the fruits of their industry (those that were not eaten) made the plot of ground around the cabin look like a playhouse of an insane child." It is clear at this point that the Ewells will be the villains of the story and that their poverty is of their own making.

In comparison, when Atticus drives Scout and Jem to the "Negro settlement" where the Robinsons live, Scout describes their cabins as looking "neat and snug with their pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside. There were delicious smells about: chicken, bacon frying crisp as the twilight air . . . [a]romas that vanished when we rode back past the Ewell residence." Lee wants us to sympathize with the Robinsons in a way that is similar to our sympathy for the Cunninghams. Each family is similarly poor and uneducated like the Ewells, but both families make the best of what they have and seem to take pride in remaining upstanding, respectable members of the community.

The difference, of course, is that the Cunninghams are white and the Robinsons are Black. When Tom Robinson is unjustly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, he finds himself imprisoned in the Maycomb County jail, where Atticus dismisses Heck Tate's concerns that Tom may be lynched before his trial can take place: "Don't be foolish, Heck," Atticus said. "This is Maycomb." He further exudes naivete when he tells Jem that the Ku Klux Klan no longer existed in Maycomb County and had only been "a political organization more than anything." At this point we discuss the realities of the Ku Klux Klan and the very real existence of extrajudicial lynchings throughout the South:

The question we want students to ask is why Harper Lee would make Atticus Finch so willfully ignorant of the dangers that Tom Robinson faced. Lee emphasizes just how wrong Atticus is when a mob—led by none other than Walter Cunningham, Sr.—shows up at the jail the following night with the intent of lynching Tom Robinson. Despite the fact that Atticus stands up to the mob and prevents them—with the help of Jem, Scout, and Dill's presence—from killing Tom Robinson, he still defends Walter Cunningham, Sr., the next day when he tells Scout and Jem that Cunningham is "basically a good man" who simply has "his blind spots along with the rest of us."

At this point, we introduce Malcolm Gladwell's 2009 essay in The New Yorker, "The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the Limits of Southern Liberalism," which includes the following pithy quote from legal scholar Monroe Freedman: "It just happens that Cunningham's blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of black people." Even though Atticus appears to be man who carefully considers all sides of a situation, he does not seem to understand that by considering Walter Cunningham "a friend of ours" despite the fact that he "might have hurt me a little" for protecting Tom Robinson, he becomes complicit in the attitudes that allow racism and oppression to propagate in Maycomb County.

As Gladwell writes, Atticus' permissive approach to racial justice is one of "accommodation, not reform." Another example of Atticus' being part of the problem rather than the solution is when Scout asks Atticus if it is okay to "hate" Hitler for the way he has persecuted the Jews. Atticus responds flatly, "It's not okay to hate anybody." While Atticus' tolerance is laudable in certain situations, is it laudable in every situation? As Gladwell dryly notes in his essay, "Really? Not even Hitler?" For Gladwell, Atticus assumes a "hearts-and-minds" approach towards achieving social justice that depends on changing people's attitudes rather than addressing the structural or systemic barriers that reinforce the underlying inequities in Maycomb County.

At this point, we introduce the controversial concept of Critical Race Theory—unless, of course, we were teaching in the state of Florida. More on that later. The Legal Defense Fund describes CRT as "an academic or legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society—from education to housing to employment to healthcare." Furthermore, the theory "recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice . . . [and] is embedded in laws, policies, and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities."

When the all-white jury finds Tom Robinson guilty, Atticus is not surprised, nor is he particularly upset. He expected the jury's verdict and tries to calm Jem's anger by explaining that "[t]hose are twelve reasonable men in everyday life," but "something came between them and reason" when they entered that jury box and were forced to choose between the words of a white person—even ones as despicable as Bob or Mayella Ewell—and those of a Black person—even one as respectable as Tom Robinson. Atticus admits that in such a racially-charged environment men like that "couldn't be fair if they tried." His hope is that one day the jury box will be filled with people like Jem "and eleven other boys like you" who would have decided in Tom's favor because nothing in their lives had yet "interfered with [their] reasoning process."

The issue that we raise with students, however, is why Atticus never questions the reason that the jury is filled with only white men. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—ratified in 1868 and 1870, respectively—guaranteed the right of Black men to vote and serve on juries, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 outlawed race-based discrimination in the jury selection process. We read excerpts from the Equal Justice Initiative's "A History of Discrimination in Jury Selection" and discuss how communities like the fictional Maycomb County in Alabama would use the rolls of registered voters to select potential jurors, which would effectively eliminate virtually every Black citizen (and most women, Black or white, after 1920) from participating on juries through voter suppression methods such as literary tests and poll taxes. We also discuss how "grandfather clauses" exempted white male voters from these restrictions and prohibitions.

As a frame of reference, we discuss how federal records reveal that in 1960—the same year that Lee published her novel and twenty-five years after the novel was set—Lowndes County in Alabama had 5,122 Black residents over the age of 21 (80% of the total population) but had exactly 0 registered Black voters. Similarly, Wilcox County had 6,085 Black residents over the age of 21 (70% of the total population) and also had exactly 0 registered Black voters:

Even though Atticus hopes that the all-white jury in Maycomb County will find Tom Robinson innocent, he expresses no interest in enforcing the laws that should have given Tom Robinson the Constitutional right to a fair trial in front of an impartial jury chosen from a cross-section of his community—a right that was guaranteed to all American citizens by the Sixth Amendment in the U.S. Bill of Rights that was ratified in 1791.

The fact that the system is rigged against Tom Robinson from the outset is implied in Lee's novel but never explicitly stated, primarily because Atticus never expresses that opinion to his children. The injustice of this system should be clear to students, however, when the novel is placed in its appropriate historical context. The question that remains is whether the laws, policies, and institutions in our country still produce these types of systemic inequalities in the present day. Proponents of Critical Race Theory, of course, would argue in the affirmative, but students should understand that CRT is simply an academic theory that is meant to be discussed and debated in class and within our society.

In June 2021, the Florida Department of Education explicitly banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory, however, stating that teaching the concepts embedded in CRT philosophy attempts "to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view" instead of relying on instruction that is "factual and objective" and does not "suppress or distort significant historical events." In December 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared war on "woke indoctrination" and equated the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools with "state-sanctioned racism" that taught our students "to hate our country [and] each other."

The "Stop W.O.K.E. Act" prohibits any teaching or instruction in public schools that "espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels" students to believe any of the following eight concepts:

  1. Members of one race, color, national origin, or sex are morally superior to members of another race, color, national origin, or sex.

  2. A person by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.

  3. A person's moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.

  4. Members of one race, color, national origin, or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race, color, national origin, or sex.

  5. A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.

  6. A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.

  7. A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.

  8. Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, national origin, or sex to oppress members of another race, color, national origin, or sex.

The paragraph that follows these eight prohibitions states that teachers can discuss race and our nation's history, no matter how contentious, so long as it is presented in an objective, nonbiased manner:

(b) Paragraph (a) may not be construed to prohibit discussion of the concepts listed therein as part of a course of training or instruction, provided such training or instruction is given in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts.

While there has been much consternation about the "chilling effect" of Florida's laws and DeSantis' confrontational rhetoric, we would contend that we do present the historical context of Lee's novel in an objective, non-biased manner. What the Florida law expressly prohibits is promoting political positions that treat subjective opinions or theories as if they were undeniable facts. Critical Race Theory—or any other theory, for that matter—is just that: a subjective opinion on why inequities persist in our society despite our best efforts at eradicating them. If CRT were presented as the theory it is, and not promoted as an objective fact, then teachers would not be violating the spirit of the Florida law.

When students write their final essay evaluating how "successful" Scout is in her "search for justice," they should paint a complicated picture. It is clear to Scout that justice was not served in the trial of Tom Robinson, but she does not understand why the system is rigged against Tom Robinson from the beginning and how her own father is complicit in that system. Lee makes it clear through characters of Aunt Alexandra, Mrs. Merriweather, and Miss Gates, however, that there is an embedded racism and blatant hypocrisy within the upper classes of Maycomb society, and one can assume that Scout has learned to question how well individuals can identify their own "blind spots" in distinguishing right from wrong.

At the end of the novel, when Atticus decides not to stand in the way of Heck Tate's lying and covering up evidence that Boo Radley killed Bob Ewell, he worries that Scout will not "possibly understand" Heck's rationale for not revealing the truth, but Scout says that she not only understands but also believes that "Mr. Tate was right." Scout equates telling the truth and following the law in this particular case to be the equivalent of "shootin' a mockingbird." In other words, Lee suggests that we may not be able to trust the system when we are in "search for justice" and that we might have to trust their own moral compass instead. When justice is dependent on flawed individuals who are unaware of their own "blind spots," however, the decisions that we make—even from people as fair-minded as Atticus Finch—should always remain suspect.

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