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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: a story for white people

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in Harper's Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Aaron Sorkin.
Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in Harper's Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Aaron Sorkin. (Julieta Cervantes)

When I first met Atticus Finch, the hero of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I did not have the vocabulary of critics who described him as a “moral compass,” but he served that role for me in my formative days. Like many a person who pursued law as a field of study, I had Atticus Finch in mind when I went to law school: a man who literally faced down a mob of his own neighbors to protect an innocent black man in the darkest of dark times in the rural South.

I was introduced to Atticus in the film version of the book that starred Gregory Peck, and I saw it where I generally watched movies while growing up in then-rural Conyers, Ga.: on television. The American Film Institute has named Atticus the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.

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Last week, I could hardly wait to visit with him again, this time at the Shubert Theater in New York City. There the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that became the 1962 film for which Peck won an Academy Award is a critically-acclaimed play. The star, Jeff Daniels, is leaving the role next month, so I wanted to experience his Atticus.

Mr. Daniels is magnificent and the play written by Aaron Sorkin is, as a New York Times critic said, “a Mockingbird for our moment.” But as I was transported to the fictional Maycomb, Ala., of the 1930s, along with about 1,400 other members of the audience, I was struck by something I had not considered before: This is really a story for white people. More specifically, it provides an opportunity for them to feel good about themselves for recognizing injustice and imagining themselves as Atticus’ allies.

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This mature black woman now realizes just how flawed Atticus Finch is as a moral compass. Had he not been so stubbornly wedded to the notion of decency in everyone — even hardcore racists — he might have provided a better defense for Tom Robinson, the innocent black man accused of raping a young white woman. Had his glasses been less rosy, he might have known what his wise black housekeeper, Calpurnia, knew: Those jurors came into the trial as monsters and left, after convicting Tom in 37 minutes, as murderers.

As 19th century investigative reporting by Ida B. Wells and more recent studies by the Equal Justice Initiative attest, black men in real life have often been accused of raping white women when the truth was something else. In Mockingbird, Tom Robinson had the audacity to feel sorry for a young white woman who was burdened with rearing a gaggle of younger siblings while fending off her drunken and abusive father — the actual rapist. She flirted with Robinson, who did chores for her out of pity — and that was an affront to her father’s sense of white superiority. So at dad’s bidding, she hollered rape.

Standing up for racial justice is always commendable. But those on whose behalf one is standing need to be heard. What makes Mr. Sorkin’s version of Mockingbird palatable in these times is that, unlike in the novel or the movie, Calpurnia (superbly played by the actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson) is not just a quiet servant. She stands up to Atticus and tries to set him straight on the matter of deep-seated racism and its mauling of justice. She tells him that while he insists on respecting Maycomb’s racists and giving them the benefit of the doubt, he is actually disrespecting people like her.

In the fight for justice, as that old church song goes, “there’s plenty good room.” Sometimes the differences in experiences and expectations make for uncomfortable alliances. For instance, some black people come to the reproductive rights struggle knowing that black women were experimented upon and subjected to eugenics and forced sterilizations in the past. Next year, we will celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment, knowing that some of the leading suffragettes were racists and that in Alabama and Georgia and other parts of the Old Confederacy, black women — and men — had to wait for passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to celebrate.

So, yes, the Broadway production is “a Mockingbird for our moment,” with lessons for all the would-be Atticuses who realize that the fight can succeed only when they listen to, and treat as equals, the Toms and Calpurnias.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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