Sunday, January 18, 2009

MLK and Atticus Finch: Defenders of Nonviolent Change

Yeah, I've been a bad, bad blogger. But I have a good excuse: I was in a play, a three-person play called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." It was an absolute blast-- I'll write about it some day, when I have some distance from it-- but it was also very time-consuming. Long story short: I had to back-burn the blogging.

And now, this post, my first one in weeks, is going to be devoted to someone else's words. Luckily, that "someone else" to a pretty amazing substitute.

During my first year teaching high school, I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. (How is it possible, you ask, that I never read it before? Blame my high school. I honestly feel cheated that I had to wait until I was thirty before I read one of the greatest books ever. But let's stick that in the "rant for another time" file.)

Anyway, while reading the book, I realized that Atticus Finch, in his quest for racial equality and his commitment to nonviolence, shared a lot in common with Martin Luther King. After I did some research, I discovered I wasn't the only one who saw this connection; so did King himself.
In fact, King actually makes an allusion to Atticus in his 1963 book Why We Can't Wait.

The Atticus reference occurs in a chapter called "The Sword That Heals," which is itself part of a metaphor King uses to describe "the just and powerful weapon" of nonviolence. Reverend King alludes to a moment in Mockingbird when Atticus goes to the local jail to protect his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, from a mob that wanted to lynch him. The scene gets tense very fast, with the men telling Atticus to get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Suddenly, Atticus' daughter Scout-- blissfully innocent as always-- comes out of the shadows and recognizes the leader of the gang; he's the father of one of the boys in her class. When she calls the man, Mr. Cunningham, by name, the mood changes; it's as if just the simple act of hearing his name awakens Mr. Cunningham to his potential actions, even shames him. The gang disperses, and the crisis is averted. Later, Atticus-- ever the wise sage-- says the incident reinforces the fact that "a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they are still human."

That's the incident in Mockingbird. Here's what King had to say about it in Why We Can't Wait:

"We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.

"Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force. I am reminded of the popular and widely respected novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, a white southern lawyer, confronts a group of his neighbors who have become a lynch-crazy mob, seeking the life of his Negro client. Finch, armed with nothing more lethal than a lawbook, disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage, aided by his small daughter, who, innocently calling the would-be lynchers by name, reminds then that they are individual men, not a pack of beasts.

"To the Negro of 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice."

I haven't taught Mockingbird in years, but I'd encourage anyone who does teach the book to use this connection. Not only does it allow for a discussion about the similarities of Atticus Finch and Martin Luther King, but it also drives home a larger point: that the literature we read in class does not exist in a vaccum. Indeed, the ideas in these texts have real-life implications. They don't always believe it, but it's true.

1 comment:

.enigma. said...

Im in 10th grade and im writing a paper for English about To Kill a Mockingbird. I chose my thesis to be how Atticus is similar to MLK. I included the quote from MLK post and it fits in perfectly with what i was looking for. Thanks