In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch—small town lawyer, single dad and principled moral force—admonishes his first-grade daughter, “Don’t say [n-word], Scout. That’s common.”
That crucial line in one of America’s most beloved stories about racial justice has reinforced an elaborately wrong lesson about racism in America for more than 50 years.
The problem is simple: Epithets aren’t rude like bad manners that education and “good breeding” can fix. The words are tools for enforcing a social structure in which some people have and wield absolute, extra-judicial, life-and-death power over others.
Yet the appeal of a calm voice speaking against such an ugly word for any reason has proved to be incredibly enduring. The 1960 novel by Harper Lee, which is set in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb during the sleepy years of the Great Depression, has consistently been described as “brilliant” and “full of useful truths.”
When it comes to works of fiction which tackle the thorny issue of race and equality in America, nothing else even approaches To Kill a Mockingbird for sheer popularity and reach. At one point in the 1980s it was estimated to be required reading for three-quarters of all American high school students. More than 30 million copies have been sold. The book has never gone out of print, and has been praised uniformly for its literary and social merit, beginning in 1961, when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
And yet for all the glory given this tale about a man taking a stand for justice, the story actually carries a gristly lesson in dehumanization all the way to its deadly conclusion. And when the death occurs, it’s treated as a triumph.
This is not a reference to the sad demise of Tom Robinson, the upstanding black man wrongly accused and convicted of raping a white woman and who later is shot by guards at a prison work farm. That death, in the book, is simply regrettable.
I’m talking about the death of Bob Ewell, the lazy lay-about town drunk who lives with his filthy family at the dump. He’s also the father of the woman who accused Tom of rape, even though, according to the narrator’s insinuation, everyone in town knows the old lecher had been raping his daughter himself.
Harper Lee’s portrayal of Bob Ewell follows the same kind of so-called logic that racists use. Racism always has twisted justification, you know. Bigots claim to be nothing more than honest, nothing worse than protective, nothing less than vigilant defenders of justice and time-honored values. And that’s the moral ground Harper Lee’s narrator claims for herself while the story maligns Bob Ewell as a low-down and dangerous animal. His bad breeding and other un-redeemable qualities are why it’s so important for him to die.
If you don’t remember the arc of the story, it gets going at the start of a school year. In the classroom, Scout explains the class structure of the town through the children. We first learn about the Ewell clan by meeting an over-sized lice-infested first-grader in Scout’s class named Burris Ewell. So right away we know the family is filthy.
The Ewells are mean, too. The disgusting kid makes his teacher cry by calling her a “snot-nosed slut.”
The narrator doesn’t mince words: “Every town the sized of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression. No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.”
It’s hard not to get caught up with Scout’s descriptions. Over and over, we read descriptions of a degenerate family that’s less than human. Indeed, in the courtroom scenes later, as Bob Ewell makes a mockery of justice, he’s described as strutting around like a “little bantam cock of a man.” The judge “looked at Ewell like he was a three-legged chicken or a square egg.”
One of the curious twists of hateful isms is the way the hated group is both reviled for being less than human but also resented for rigging systems in their own favor. The narrator has it both ways with Ewell, too. He’s ignorant and vile, yes, but Ewell somehow manipulates the courtroom like an idiot savant, goading and prodding the jury and the gallery with his folksy phrases and ignorant country ways.
The pillars of Maycomb society are powerless in the face of this piece of white trash who plays to the local townsfolk and farmers by shouting from the witness stand stuff like, “I seen that black [n-word] yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!”
It’s easy to hate Bob Ewell. The story demands it. We blame him for the miscarriage of justice when the jury convicts Tom Robinson. It’s especially galling after Tom loses his case on appeal. In despair, Robinson runs for the fence at the prison farm and a guard shoots him dead.
Still, like any truly detestable critter, Bob isn’t done. He can’t stand a black family that’s held in higher regard than his own, and so he harasses Tom’s widow until the shopkeeper she works for threatens him. Bob even plots to go after the judge and Atticus, who you recall is the lawyer who defended Tom.
In the closing chapters of the book, as Scout and her brother are coming home in the warm blackness of a Halloween night, the drunk and disgusting specter of Bob Ewell has become an evil presence, lurking in the novel’s shadows. It’s serious. He’s actually lurking, and armed with a razor sharp knife. He’s cowardly. And vicious.
Bob Ewell stabs at Scout and her brother, but his knife gets caught in her brother’s costume. A reclusive, rich and well-born neighbor named Boo Radley appears in the blackness. He’d been keeping a protective eye on the kids the whole time. Boo kills Bob with Bob’s own knife and then carries Scout’s brother into the Finch house to safety.
That’s when we see the true power of the depiction of Bob Ewell.
His death isn’t serious. It’s hardly notable at all, except as a good deed. It warrants no official action. As the doctor sets the boy’s broken arm, Atticus and the sheriff simply decide to cover up the circumstances. As the sheriff says, “‘There’s just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to ‘em. Even then, they ain’t worth the bullet it takes to shoot ‘em.’”
In the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, those at the top of the local hierarchy bear no responsibility for society’s ills. Racism to them is a confounding thing that well-meaning folk like Atticus can only understand as a “local disease” afflicting poor but otherwise honest folk. Powerless against the disease are the sheriff, the newspaper publisher, the judge and, of course, Atticus.
Think of Judge Taylor, whose only vice, says Atticus, is chewing tobacco. The judge struggled to give Tom Robinson a fair trial, so much so that one night long after the trial and even after Tom’s death Bob Ewell tries to sneak into the judge’s house for revenge. The judge hears something and investigates, only to find his screen door swinging open and a fleeting shadow in the dark at the corner of the house. When the judge’s wife comes home later she finds the aging jurist snoozing in a chair with a shotgun on his lap. The judge seems to be a blunt but ineffective force of justice, but history tells us a different story. Local judges in the Jim Crow South played pivotal roles in maintaining the peculiar system that allowed for racist vigilante violence to coexist alongside law and order.
The sheriff in the novel is portrayed as just and good, basically the same as the judge. His only fault is that he’s too gullible, too harmless. For instance, after Tom Robinson was arrested on the bogus story of Bob Ewell, the sheriff never intended to leave the black man unguarded at the jailhouse. But he did. He was lured away by a trick of the racists, just as the white mob descends on the jail to lynch Tom. It’s just as well that the sheriff was gone, though. He was fairly useless in the story, unable even to kill a mad dog. He asked Atticus to do it, because Atticus has steadier hands.
In reality, though, far from being essentially well-intentioned but powerless against the scourge of prejudiced poor white farmers, it’s a clear matter of public record that law officers actively and routinely enforced the racist social order with guns, whips, chains, clubs and dogs.
Over the decades, thousands upon thousands of people have been tortured and killed by or in the presence of law officers, often in organized groups of whites-only councils made up of a town’s leading citizens.
In Florida, one typical sheriff was named Willis McCall. He was elected and re-elected for decades, as he carried out a reign of terror into the 1950s, often under the direction of the owners of the region’s orange groves. Near the end of McCall’s career, while transporting two black men for trumped-up charges of raping a white woman, the sheriff shot his two handcuffed prisoners. He claimed the two had attacked him. One of his victims miraculously lived, though, and later told of being ordered from the vehicle and riddled with bullets. Still, the survivor was later dragged from his jail cell and killed by a mob. Later, a coroner’s inquest of the shooting found McCall had acted in self-defense.
Such travesties of justice were considered normal for decades.
McCall wasn’t a rare example. He was part of the notorious normal. It’s no secret where the law stood when it came to America’s caste system. In 1916 in Texas, for example, a 17-year-old farmhand was castrated, mutilated and burned alive by a cheering mob that included the town’s mayor and chief of police. The lynching was memorialized in a postcard, which shows the well-dressed townsfolk merrily laughing and mugging for the camera, while a charred body dangles gruesomely above them. The presence of local bigwigs wasn’t outrageous but entirely ordinary.
And then there is Atticus Finch, himself, a lawyer by training and a legislator. The book is mute on his legislative service, but details in the story suggest he would have first won election sometime around or before 1920 and, if so, would have retired from the legislature about 15 years later in the mid-1930s.
Atticus, from a small town in Alabama serving in the 1920s, was without question a member of the Democratic Party. The party had an almost complete monopoly on Alabama politics at that time, especially in rural districts, and Jim Crow laws received unanimous approval from Democratic politicians. As a result, a legislator like Atticus Finch would have voted to segregate elementary and high schools. He would have helped pass the “one drop rule,” which said even one black ancestor made someone black, and he would have voted to make miscegenation a felony.
Atticus would also have voted for laws that expanded segregation to include movie theaters, restaurants and other public places. He would have voted for laws that criminalized non-crimes like vagrancy, which was one of many legal excuses used to terrorize black people and to sentence them to long terms at prison work camps in virtual slavery.
No Democratic state legislator in Alabama of that generation opposed the bill that segregated public buses, which had only just come into wide usage in public transportation. The character of Atticus would have helped pass the law that the famed civil rights activist Rosa Parks protested against in 1955 when she refused to move to the back of the bus.
It’s tempting to think of To Kill a Mockingbird as an aberration, that it must be the only story to so fully shift blame from those who created and enforced Jim Crow segregation to the poor white people who were only better off than blacks because, as Harper Lee said, “if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”
But actually there’s a long history of exactly this type of thing. One of the most telling examples involves a photograph of a leading racist politician, which was doctored more than a century ago.
The black-and-white photograph depicts an impassioned speaker in the back of a wagon, mid-speech, one finger raised in a jabbing gesture, while a crowd of slouching white farmers in country hats and overalls stand clustered around.
The politician is “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a Democratic governor and U.S. Senator from South Carolina, who launched his political career by leading wild white-supremacist brigades and lynch mobs and who engineered widespread election fraud in the 1870s and 1880s before becoming a state and national leader in public office, from 1890 to 1918.
The photo is one of the few images of Ben Tillman at work in his native element, rousing hardscrabble Southern whites to homicidal rage and legislative triumph, except for one thing.
The photo, accepted without question by historians for generations, is a fake.
The fakery was discovered, almost by accident, by a historian named Stephen Kantrowitz in the mid-1990s, who spotted that distinctive jabbing finger of Pitchfork Ben in a staged portraitof the senator at the Library of Congress.
Kantrowitz took the original from the Library of Congress and compared it to the fake. It became instantly clear that Tillman’s image had been carefully trimmed out of the former and pasted onto the fake setting of the latter.
“That finger isn’t something you forget,” said Kantrowitz, explaining how he randomly spotted the original. Kantrowitz then searched until he found a real photo of an actual Tillman speech. In that one, the senator was surrounded not by shabby farmers but by well-dressed businessmen and bankers in the sharp attire of urban notables.
Major landowners like Tillman often portrayed white supremacy as arising instinctively from lower class white southerners. It was a handy justification for Jim Crow laws to skeptical Northerners because it recast elites as actually the protectors of African Americans, who would, without the protection of Jim Crow laws, suffer a worse fate from the seething mass of lower class whites of “staggering ignorance and almost primal viciousness,” writes Kantrowitz.
“Elites like… Tillman sought to appear gravely law-abiding while they arranged a lynching,” Katrowitz writes in his biography, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.
In 1938, this same rationalization was invoked by U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi as he successfully filibustered federal anti-lynching legislation by saying such a law would fling open the “floodgates of hell.”
Lynch mobs, he argued, actually maintained peace in the South, by keeping blacks at bay, and preventing the outright slaughter of black men by whites who “will not tolerate” the violation of white women.
The centerpiece of Sen. Bilbo’s argument is that blacks naturally provoke the deadly hatred and violence of lower-class whites. It’s up to the “better class,” the lawyers and doctors and politicians to maintain the Southern caste system to protect black people.
That’s pretty much the picture painted by Harper Lee. The story’s appeal is easy to see. It may be comforting to think that America’s ugliest traditions are the fault of low-class hillbillies rather than the people in charge, the wealthy and educated, but it’s not true. And it’s a dangerous untruth.
Like the rants of racists like Sen. Bilbo, the social lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird are meant to prove the uselessness of any effort to stop the injustices heaped on black people, or to lift poor whites from their permanent lower-class status.
The novel’s truth is a profoundly reactionary vision of the world, one of stratified layers of humanity and no possibility of economic or political justice or even any social mobility at all, nothing except the death for those deemed worthless. It’s also a world in which justice is defined not by principles but by the rich and powerful. It’s an insidious world, one in which words don’t mean what they seem to mean, like how the original U.S. Constitution could both say all men are created equal and some men are valued at three-fifths of a man. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch goes on and on about how everyone, even a black man, deserves equal access to justice, a principle that excludes Bob Ewell.