As I went to three of the funerals for the beautiful nine martyrs in Charleston, South Carolina, I addressed the audience and joined our local chapter of National Action Network (NAN) and the NAACP to call for the Confederate flag to come down. This week, I am back in New York City for Saturday's mass rally marking the one-year anniversary of the NYPD chokehold death of Eric Garner. These events are occurring at a time when we are learning about Harper Lee's eagerly awaited 1950s novel, Go Set a Watchman (releasing Tuesday), in which we apparently discover that the beloved main character in her classic To Kill a Mockingbird is actually a bigot. Atticus Finch is revealed as not the great White liberal defender of a falsely accused African American, but as an aging man with very prejudiced attitudes against desegregation and Blacks in general. As literary analysts and others react to what this book will do to a character and a book that had long been the standard of race relations in this country, I correlate this new reality to the reality of how some who we thought were on the side of racial and social justice were really masquerading all this time. Their true characters are being revealed now just like Atticus Finch.
For those of us that grew up reading To Kill A Mockingbird, Finch represented the hope of solidarity of a nation that was and is still struggling to unite and heal from its ugly racial history. I remember as a youngster watching Gregory Peck play Finch, and how we literally had this image of a White liberal before his time. To now discover that Finch held such bigoted ideas is shocking, disheartening and telling. A year ago, when we raised questions regarding the police chokehold of Garner, then a month later in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, then with Tamir Rice in Cleveland, then with John Crawford III at a Walmart in Ohio, then the case of Walter Scott in N. Charleston, then Freddie Gray in Baltimore, we discovered that many we thought were liberal, when pressed, had deep biases. They were willing to stand for one glaring situation, but didn't dare question institutional racism, or seek fundamental change. That is when you find out they were not the character you thought they were.
When we see those that are willing to take down the Confederate flag, but not willing to continue the conversation about inequality, income and educational disparity, health care, a criminal justice system that is still largely based on race and more, we find out who they really are. I don't know why Harper Lee's book did not ever surface before, but it is appropriate that it surfaces now because just like we didn't know how she really felt Finch was, we are in the middle of a flag going down, and a year later no justice going up in the Garner case to find out a lot of characters that we thought were fair minded and committed to justice turned into something other than that in the last year.
As NAN and I responded to families that reached out to us for help because they had nowhere to turn to bury their loved ones and put a spotlight on injustices, we were suddenly accused of seeking publicity and seeking money. The fact of the matter is, we brought resources and have no direct or indirect attachment to civil proceedings if there are any. As we raised questions of racial disparity, we were accused of being racists. After all, it is a lot easier to try and demonize and attack those fighting for justice than to tackle the ugly truth of systemic racism and injustice in the nation. Sadly, some pretended to be aligned in the quest for change, but a year later, we are learning the truth.
With the increasing use of technology and social media, the conversation and focus on these tragic cases and race relations in general has increased. But it appears that there is a Harper Lee factor going on in the dialogue; the picture we have is not necessarily the whole story of characters that are in this discussion. With the Confederate flag going down, and cases like Garner approaching a year, maybe we need to reset and find out who everyone really is on all sides of the conversation -- and who they are not.