Deconstructing Atticus Finch: In Praise of Monroe Freedman

Nobody is perfect, not even Atticus Finch. But to a generation of readers -- including lawyers -- the Atticus Finch portrayed in Harper Lee's just-published novel "Go Set a Watchman" is not the Atticus Finch of Lee's classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird. " Readers are upset, even disoriented. The Atticus Finch in Lee's new novel is now a crotchety, mean-spirited, racist, not the deified single father and heroic defender of the weak and powerless. But Atticus was never the one-dimensional character that readers and moviegoers revered; his flaws were not that difficult to recognize, if only the observer had the acumen and courage to do so.

One of these observers was Monroe Freedman, who died last February at 86. Freedman was the most formidable figure in the world of legal ethics. Law professor, law school dean, iconoclast, and provocateur, Freedman pioneered legal ethics as a core part of law school curriculums, and was a monumental presence in the legal profession. Freedman had a brilliant knack to see things that others did not, or would not see. And he was no stranger to controversy. He was the first scholar to argue that the ban on lawyer advertising violates the First Amendment by restricting legal services to those persons most in need of information about their legal rights; that lawyers have a professional duty to "chase ambulances" if for no other reason than to alert injured people to their rights; and that a lawyer as a zealous advocate has a professional duty to present his client's testimony even though the lawyer knows it is false. And Freedman long ago -- an eerie foreshadowing - saw Atticus Finch not as the moral conscience of the nation -- the popular persona of "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- but much closer to the angry southern racist in "Go Set a Watchman."

In a 1994 essay in the Alabama Law Review -- "Atticus Finch -- Right and Wrong" -- Freedman deconstructs the popular mythology "extolling Finch as a paragon of moral character." To the commentators who applaud Finch for volunteering to represent an indigent defendant -- Tom Robinson charged with rape, a capital offense in Alabama - Freedman notes that Finch did not volunteer to take the case; Finch reluctantly accepted the appointment by Judge Taylor. Finch candidly tells Taylor: "I'd hoped to get through life without a case of this kind." Freedman derides Finch's "fatuous and untruthful" answers to his son Jeb's probing questions when they confront a lynch mob outside the jail where Robinson is being held.

Finch tells his son that Walter Cunningham, leader of the lynch mob, is "basically a good man" who "just has his blind spots along with the rest of us." Cunningham's "blind spot," Freedman notes sardonically, "is a homicidal hatred of black people." When Jeb replies with the innocent wisdom of a child that attempted murder is not a "blind spot," Finch "condescendingly explains" to his son that "You'll understand folks a little better when you're older." Finch tells his son that Cunningham is "still a man," and minimizes Cunningham's presence in the lynch mob because "a mob's always made up of people." Freedman, plainly incredulous, asks rhetorically: "Is a lynch mob not a lynch mob because it's 'made up of people'"? And Freedman, with undisguised disdain, observes that whether or not Cunningham "is still a man" does not mean that "he has no moral responsibility for attempted murder." "Who," Freedman asks, "does have moral (and legal) responsibility for a wrongful action if not the person who commits the wrong?"

Freedman's essay eviscerates those commentators who embrace the "cultural relativism" that rejects moral absolutes and embraces the idea that morality should be equated with notions of right and wrong that are associated with a culture at a particular time and place. Slavery? Lynching? Apartheid? Sacrificing babies? To Freedman, "the apartheid that Atticus Finch practiced every day of his life -- those things are wrong today, and they were wrong in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s.

To Freedman, Finch averts his eyes from the truth. Finch trivializes the Ku Klux Klan as just a harmless political organization that had nothing to do with mobs and lynchings. Finch does acknowledge that "ku Klux got after some Catholics one time," but, as Freedman points out, fails to explain that Catholics were the frequent victims of Klan violence. Instead, Freedman writes, Finch responds evasively: "Never heard of any Catholics in Maycomb either." The "Mockingbird" Finch also makes light of the vicious anti-semitic Klan demonstration, in full regalia, in front of the house of a man named Sam Levy.

The Finch in "Mockingbird," Freedman observes, knows that black people in his community were constantly reminded of their innate inferiority. They are compelled to live in a ghetto near the town garbage dump. They cannot use the white only rest rooms, the white only water fountains, the white only lunch counters, or the white only parks. If their children went to school, their segregated schools had few if any books. Finch knows that the administration of justice in Maycomb is racist. Black people were segregated in the courtroom where Finch practices law, portrayed so powerfully in the "Mockingbird" film.

As Freedman tells it, Finch throughout his relatively comfortable and privileged life "knows about the grinding poverty, ever-present humiliation and degradation of the black people of Maycomb; he tolerates it, and sometimes even trivializes and condones it." Finch knows that "one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it" - that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is inevitable, but decades too soon. Should we really be surprised to learn, decades later, that Atticus Finch is a mean-spirited racist?

Freedman does not expect Atticus Finch to work on the front lines for the N.A.A.C.P., or dedicate his professional life in fighting for social justice. To Freedman, "That's too easy to preach and too hard to practice." But Freedman debunks some of the popular myths that portray Finch as a "paragon of social activism," and "the hope of the downtrodden." On the contrary, as Freedman explains, Finch never in his professional life voluntarily took a pro bono case in an effort to ameliorate an evil -- which he himself and others recognize -- in the apartheid of Maycomb, Alabama. Freedman observes: "Here is a man who does not voluntarily use his legal training and skills -- not once, ever -- to make the slightest change in the pervasive social injustice of his own town."

To Freedman, Atticus Finch is a skilled lawyer, and a friend of the rich and powerful. He was a member of the state legislature for many years. His legislative acumen resulted in reorganizing the tax system. "Could he not," Freedman asks, "introduce one bill to mitigate the evils of segregation"? Could he not work with Judge Taylor -- the judge who appointed him to defend Tom Robinson -- in an effort to desegregate the courthouse? Could he not take, voluntarily, a single appeal in a death penalty case"? Indeed, Tom Robinson's case is not unique. Referring to the jury's conviction of an innocent man, Finch says, "They've done it before... and they'll do it again."
So we should not be surprised at the Atticus Finch in "Go Set a Watchman." We should not be surprised that Finch attended a Klan meeting. We should not be surprised when Finch tells his grown-up daughter Jean Louise: "The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people." And asks: "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools, and churches and theaters?" We should not be surprised that he hates the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education as usurping state sovereignty, and his demeaning dismissal of civil rights lawyers as "buzzards."

Freedman, wise, fair, and with integrity, does not ignore Finch's admirable qualities -- a loving and understanding father coping with the burden of being a single parent, a kind and considerate man who treats everyone with respect, a superb advocate and conscientious legislator. And in one instance, Freedman writes, he is "truly courageous" -- he heroically waits for and faces down the lynch mob at the jail, armed only with a newspaper. In short, Freedman concludes, Atticus Finch is both more and less the mythological figure that has been made of him, "He is human. Sometimes right and sometimes wrong."

Ironically, the courage, honesty, and integrity that many readers associate with a literary creation are the self-same qualities that we see in Monroe Freedman and that make him so memorable.