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Forgotten history haunts the great American novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The writer, Harper Lee, now appears to have projected one image of protagonist Atticus Finch in a courtroom but another 20 years later at home in a new novel Go Set a Watchman. But the puzzle of Finch's identity and beliefs is easily solved.

Harper Lee

Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, won a Pulitzer prize for her novel, was further honored by having the book required reading in schools across the United States and by a film based on the novel released in 1962. She received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and the National Medal of Arts in 2010.

The release of Go Set a Watchman this year, depicting an elderly Finch from Mockingbird as a racist, has produced much confusion and consternation but little enlightenment, especially since the 89-year-old novelist has refused interviews on the new novel.

Watchman was originally rejected for publication in 1957. Publishers instead recommended a book glorifying themes of civil rights. Mockingbird was Lee’s second novel. Her plan was for a trilogy, with a connecting book between the two novels, which was never written. Harper’s lawyer recently found Watchman, and a publisher knew that the unknown novel would attract a lot of attention. As it did.

We are told that Mockingbird was written to fictionalize a true event that Lee experienced while growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1936, when her attorney father lost a court case involving two black men accused of murdering a white man. A preface in a 1994 edition of Mockingbird suggests that Lee and her father might also have been affected by the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case.

For many Americans, Mockingbird seemed to offer a portrayal of Clarence Darrow, who famously defended black men accused of murdering a white man in the Osseian Sweet trial of 1925.

But for many Americans, Mockingbird seemed to offer a portrayal of Clarence Darrow, who famously defended black men accused of murdering a white man in the Osseian Sweet trial of 1925. Darrow’s eloquent seven-hour speech, seen as a landmark in the Civil Rights movement, was included in the 2008 book “Speeches that Changed the World.”

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How, then, could Lee depict a civil rights defense lawyer as a racist? One answer is that lawyers defend anyone they want. Or they could have second thoughts about a case. Or disown the later implications of their legal arguments.

The most satisfactory answer is to examine Darrow’s next big case after 1925—the Massie Trial of 1932. In 1931, Thalia Massie accused nonwhites of raping her in Honolulu, but they were found not guilty for lack of evidence. Her husband, Thomas Massie, then arranged to kidnap two of the exonerated defendants and killed one.

A family friend of Darrow persuaded him to defend Massie in a trial so important that racist members of Congress threatened to replace Hawaii’s democratic territorial government with commission rule similar to martial law. Darrow, then broke, needed the money. But his “honor killing” defense in 1932 was not successful, as evidence was overwhelming to convict the white murderer.

Pressure from Washington on the presidentially-appointed governor of the Territory of Hawaii then resulted in commutation of the sentence against Massie—one hour of detention in the Office of the Governor. When the hour was up, a military escort drove Massie and his family to an awaiting naval ship, and they soon sailed away from the Islands.

The episode spurred Islanders to vigorously campaign for statehood, when they could elect their own governor. A government body seeking that goal was established in 1935.

Darrow is now remembered as one of the greatest defense lawyers in American history. Chicago honored him by naming the bridge south of the Museum of Science & Industry after him.

michael haas

Yet Darrow has never been pilloried for being a turncoat on civil rights. Perhaps until now, when Harper Lee’s Watchman has shed a new light on the legendary Atticus Finch as a more complicated human being than Hollywood’s cardboard character.

Michael Haas
President, Political Film Society