Harper Lee: The Unacclaimed Realist of the Civil Rights Movement

Watchman 3I opened my copy of Go Set a Watchman somewhat apprehensively. Deterred by the less than encouraging and largely mixed reviews of Harper Lee’s long-awaited To Kill a Mockingbird sequel, I prepared myself for the disappointment that would supposedly follow.

The book is set twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird when Jean Louise Finch (having shed her childhood nickname, Scout) returns to visit her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama from New York. The small town that awaits her is desperately trying to resist the waves of desegregation rippling across the US. To her horror, she finds her father, Atticus Finch – hero of To Kill a Mockingbird and long-time advocate of equality – at the centre of this resistance.

The novel thus seems to shatter the image of Atticus that Lee carefully created in her first release, weaving into its pages themes of disillusionment and a loss of hope. While this has led to controversy and outcry among critics and fans, Lee has achieved something few have given her credit for thus far: she humanises the struggle between whites and blacks in the 1950s South in a way few authors have done. While most literature, art and film has focused on the Civil Rights movement itself, Lee controversially focuses on the anti-movement. She portrays the issue of segregation from the perspective of the perpetrators. She humanises the segregationists by centring their movement around one of the most-loved literary characters of all time: Atticus Finch.

Harper LeeMany see this as a backwards step. Some might go as far as to argue that she sympathises with the segregationists. In fact, Lee simply shows what a painful and imperfect process desegregation was for the region, illustrating how it truly ripped apart societies and families. Animosity emerged not only between white families and their long-serving black household staff, but also between the conservative and more progressive elements of individual white families. Entire communities were polarised. What we now see as the natural, fair integration of black people into society, those same societies saw as an existential threat.

Lee essentially reminds us in Watchman that, while the issue of racial equality now seems largely black and white, in the 1950s South there existed a whole spectrum of greys.

So why publish this now? After years of success, decades of being hailed a champion of the Civil Rights movement, why has Lee gone on to publish a sequel that calls into question the impressions left behind by her first book? Some have suggested that Lee, now aged 89, was pressured into releasing Watchman by her lawyers and publishers.

PeckGregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (image: CNN)

We may never find out. But what we are left with after reading Go Set a Watchman is a more realistic idea of the 1950s South. We are left with a less idealistic view of the Civil Rights movement and a deeper understanding of its complex effects on the region. We are reminded that it was a painful process, and one which cannot be looked at as a finite point in history, but a long-term battle which is arguably still simmering in parts of the US today.

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