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To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 25 - 31

#172: Nov. - Jan. 2021 (Fiction)
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Chris OConnor

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To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 25 - 31

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To Kill a Mockingbird
Please use this thread to discuss Chapters 25 through 31.
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Robert Tulip

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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 25 - 31

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Now that the police murderer of George Floyd has been found guilty, it is interesting to compare the public response to this event today to the total impunity with which the Alabama court system convicted Tom Robinson nearly a century ago, in a work of fiction drawn directly from observation of actual practice.

I keep getting reminded of Bob Dylan's Hurricane
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 25 - 31

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Chapter 26 wrote:There was one odd thing, though, that I never understood: in spite of Atticus’s shortcomings as a parent, people were content to re-elect him to the state legislature that year, as usual, without opposition. I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar, I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to.
I would like to continue providing commentary to the end of the book. Now looking at Chapter 26, Scout is reflecting on the aftermath of the Robinson trial. She has clearly understood that the defence of Robinson by her father Atticus was broadly seen in Maycomb as an appalling lapse of judgement. And yet now we see that Atticus has been re-elected unopposed to the Alabama legislature. How can this be?

It is like the racist community can see that anything that draws external attention to their peculiar institution will be unwelcome. The thinking seems to be that Atticus can do absolutely nothing about racism through advocacy in Montgomery, and he is a capable and upstanding man despite his sympathies for the downtrodden. Starting a public debate about racism is something the racists will inevitably lose, so best not to encourage any attention at all, and just pretend that life continues as normal, ie so that existing racist practices can avoid any scrutiny.
Cecil spoke up. “Well I don’t know for certain,” he said, “they’re supposed to change money or somethin‘, but that ain’t no cause to persecute ’em. They’re white, ain’t they?”
Scout’s Grade Three class is discussing current events, and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews comes up. The conversation reveals how the children cannot comprehend why anyone would be persecuted for their race, unless they are black. Scout muses about how a maniac could possibly get control of a country, which leads to her wondering about the blatant hypocrisy of her teacher Miss Gates, who excoriates Hitler but says about black people
it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin‘ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us.
Here we see the underlying racial dynamic of power, that a demonstration of power to convict an innocent man itself sends a powerful signal to the oppressed community about the risks of conversations about truth and justice.

Scout tries to discuss these issues with her big brother Jem, but finds that he closes down the topic with a furious and violent tirade, saying “I never wanta hear about that courthouse again, ever, ever, you hear me? You hear me? Don’t you ever say one word to me about it again, you hear? Now go on!”

Jem had been appalled at the injustice of the verdict against Tom Robinson, but now it seems his desire to fit in to his community, especially the football team, means he has discovered that such moral concerns are deeply unpopular.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 25 - 31

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Chapter 27 begins with the travails of Bob Ewell. Having escaped public censure for incest, by expediently getting Tom Robinson jailed on false pretenses to prosecute the race war, Ewell shows himself incapable of holding down the simplest job. He then continues to harass Robinson’s widow, showing no mercy or compassion for the fact that Ewell’s own actions directly caused Robinson’s death while allegedly escaping from jail.

The line in this chapter that most caught my eye was
Cecil Jacobs asked me one time if Atticus was a Radical. When I asked Atticus, Atticus was so amused I was rather annoyed, but he said he wasn’t laughing at me. He said, “You tell Cecil I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin.”
I looked up Cotton Tom, and found the following on Wikipedia:
Heflin first rose to political prominence as a delegate who helped to draft the 1901 Constitution of Alabama. Heflin argued, successfully, for completely excluding black Alabamians from voting, stating, "God Almighty intended the negro to be the servant of the white man." As Secretary of State in 1903, Heflin was an outspoken supporter of men put on trial for enslaving black laborers through fraudulent convict leasing. As detailed in Douglas A. Blackmon's book, Slavery by Another Name, the practices were a brutal, post-emancipation form of slavery in which African Americans were often falsely convicted of crimes and then sold to farmers or industrialists. Heflin explicitly used white supremacist rhetoric to mobilize support for the defendants. He argued before a group of Confederate veterans that forcing blacks to labor was a means to hold them in their proper social position.[1]
It strikes me as bizarre, politically and psychologically, that Atticus should instruct his daughter to tell people to compare him to Senator Heflin, who was an extreme pro-slavery activist at the top of Alabama politics. Atticus is in fact far more radical than Heflin, so it seems he is telling his daughter to lie in order to cover up his real views. Perhaps he means he is as radical as Heflin in the opposite direction, anti-racist as opposed to pro-racist. But the immediate meaning of the statement reads like a gaffe, favourably comparing himself to someone whom in fact he despises.

The chapter concludes with Scout’s dressing as a pork chop for the ill-fated Maycomb Halloween Pageant.
Last edited by Robert Tulip on Mon Apr 26, 2021 3:20 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 25 - 31

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Robert Tulip wrote:It strikes me as bizarre, politically and psychologically, that Atticus should instruct his daughter to tell people to compare him to Senator Heflin, who was an extreme pro-slavery activist at the top of Alabama politics. Atticus is in fact far more radical than Heflin, so it seems he is telling his daughter to lie in order to cover up his real views. Perhaps he means he is as radical as Heflin in the opposite direction, anti-racist as opposed to pro-racist. But the immediate meaning of the statement reads like a gaffe, favourably comparing himself to someone whom in fact he despises.
I'm not so sure, Robert, that Atticus truly opposes racism and discrimination. I admit the evidence in the book isn't consistent one way or the other, and perhaps also I'm influenced by Lee's earlier book, Go Set a Watchman. The latter book, written before Mockingbird and featuring Atticus as an all-out racist, seems to present a lineage of Atticus's views on race. Watchman refers to an incident in which Atticus--undoubtedly a racist, mind you--defended a black man and got him acquitted. Guided by her editor, Lee reworked the Watchman material into the world-famous book we read, making the passing mention of a black man on trial the center of the new book.

Lynchings that occurred frequently in the South through the 1950s may create the impression that Southerners approved of murder and mutilation to keep their oppressive system working. I doubt that was true in general. The 'respectable' parts of society would have condemned that, while nevertheless upholding segregation as necessary for maintaining the God-ordained order of society. So it was quite possible for Southerners to see themselves as defenders of a system that benefitted all, and for them to insist on humane but intentionally unequal treatment of African Americans. In fact, I think it's not going too far to say that segregation's greatest strength was its identification, in the Southern mind, with virtue and right. That delusion enabled it to survive as long as it did.

Atticus puts himself on the line in this book. No doubt he was courageous in insisting that evidence matters just as much when a black man is accused as it does when a white is accused. But regarding the broader matter of legal rights for blacks, there isn't an indication that he has a brief for that. He doesn't work on those issues in the legislature--because no Southerner in the 1930s did.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 25 - 31

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DWill wrote:I'm not so sure, Robert, that Atticus truly opposes racism and discrimination.
I was surprised by this comment as I had assumed that opposition to racism and discrimination was a key part of the personality of Atticus Finch. Looking back through the book, there are several incidents that support this anti-racist interpretation.

Chapter 3: Atticus instructs Scout to learn to see things from another person’s point of view. This is something that racists resolutely refuse to do. Instead they assume only their own perspective is legitimate

A key episode is in Chapter 9, where Scout asks Atticus if he “defend niggers”. His response is “Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.” To Scout's rejoinder “‘s what everybody at school says,” Atticus replies “From now on it’ll be everybody less one—”. The thoroughly racialised environment of the education system is then illustrated by Scout's question “Well if you don’t want me to grow up talkin‘ that way, why do you send me to school?” My father looked at me mildly, amusement in his eyes.

For Atticus to ban use of the term ‘nigger’ as ‘common’ reflected a strongly anti-racist perspective in 1930s Alabama.

Next comes the family altercation, where Scout’s cousin sets out the racist perspective, saying “If Uncle Atticus lets you run around with stray dogs, that’s his own business, like Grandma says, so it ain’t your fault. I guess it ain’t your fault if Uncle Atticus is a nigger-lover besides, but I’m here to tell you it certainly does mortify the rest of the family—”

It is quite complicated to see how someone like Atticus could be generally viewed in this way and yet still be racist.

There are more examples, most notably his whole conduct of the court case, which requires remarkable courage on his part including standing up to a lynch mob. The book title means it is immoral to punish the innocent. Thinking that through, any act of racial discrimination involves punishment of the innocent, so the entire premise of To Kill A Mockingbird is the moral critique of racism.

On the other hand, there is the sense that Atticus is just standing up for the core values of western civilization, embodied in his name, which is Roman for Athenian, and so symbolises the tenets of democracy, urbanity and freedom. But Athenians were totally racist against those they condemned as barbarians. The Athenian economy ran on slavery, so it is entirely possible that a modern American depicted as holding Athenian values could be racist, based on the relative priority they give to ethical concepts of human rights as against concepts like imperial stability.

The touchstone of racism is whether a person pre-judges another person's capacity on the basis of skin colour or family background. I’m sure it is correct that no one in Alabama a century ago could have avoided such prejudicial assumptions, as the explicit philosophy of anti-racism only gradually evolved.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-racism explains that “although many Abolitionists did not regard blacks or mulattos as equal to whites, they did, in general, believe in freedom and often even equality of treatment for all people.” This illustrates that it is entirely possible to oppose the injustice of slavery or lynching while holding the racist view that blacks are intrinsically inferior to whites. I don’t read anything in To Kill A Mockingbird that suggests Atticus held that racist view, but nor is there anything to explicitly show he did not.
DWill wrote: I admit the evidence in the book isn't consistent one way or the other, and perhaps also I'm influenced by Lee's earlier book, Go Set a Watchman. The latter book, written before Mockingbird and featuring Atticus as an all-out racist, seems to present a lineage of Atticus's views on race. Watchman refers to an incident in which Atticus--undoubtedly a racist, mind you--defended a black man and got him acquitted. Guided by her editor, Lee reworked the Watchman material into the world-famous book we read, making the passing mention of a black man on trial the center of the new book.
Thanks, that illustrates how Lee’s thinking evolved, since To Kill a Mockingbird has no avowal of any racist sentiments by Atticus except this strange comparison to the racist senator that prompted this discussion. Perhaps the editor saw that the dramatic power of the book would be enhanced by toning down the original idea of Atticus as holding the same values as his community.
DWill wrote: segregation's greatest strength was its identification, in the Southern mind, with virtue and right. That delusion enabled it to survive as long as it did.
Moral legitimacy always requires a sense of divine mandate, a belief that values are part of the natural order. Racism cannot survive unless racists sincerely believe their views are good, since no community can endure with a view of itself as evil.
DWill wrote:Atticus puts himself on the line in this book. No doubt he was courageous in insisting that evidence matters just as much when a black man is accused as it does when a white is accused. But regarding the broader matter of legal rights for blacks, there isn't an indication that he has a brief for that. He doesn't work on those issues in the legislature--because no Southerner in the 1930s did.
This is a good point, illustrating the gradual evolution of prevailing thinking about race. It is important not to impute modern views into people living a century ago. Atticus supports the principle of justice, meaning the right to a fair trial. That does not indicate he understood justice to require abolition of legal inequality based on race.
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