Harper Lee’s White Liberal Fantasy

Peck, Peters in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Peck, Peters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

This past Monday I had the pleasure of seeing my three senior project students present their findings to large audiences. Their talks were well received, and I played the role of proud parent (along with their actual parents, who were also in attendance). I promised updates since first reporting on their projects earlier in the year. Here’s what Wick Eisenberg had to say about “depictions of the white liberal in  Civil Rights era literature.” (I reported earlier on Wick’s project here.)

Wick’s love for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is what initially drew him into the project, but he developed a more nuanced view of the novel in the course of the project. By the end, he had come to regard it as a “white liberal fantasy.”

Wick saw the novel as a response to, among other things, the Emmett Till murder and growing black activism, including the Montgomery bus boycott and the Little Rock desegregation battles. Wick said that, before the Civil Rights movement heated up, many southern liberals thought that all they needed to do was be nice to blacks and eventually segregation would vanish of its own accord. After these events, they realized that they would have to be more proactive.

To Kill a Mockingbird, however, shows them being proactive on their own terms. The case involving Tom Robinson has echoes of the Emmett Till case as an all-white jury finds a clearly innocent black man to be guilty. (In the Till case, the murderers of the 14-year-old boy were clearly guilty but were declared innocent.) In one way, Atticus seems to rise to the occasion as he bucks public opinion and stands up for equal rights for all.  But Wick noted that Harper Lee softened the historical situation considerably.

First of all, she shows Atticus to be revered in the black community. No one holds him responsible for losing the case—indeed, they all stand to honor him—and Lee appears to approve of Atticus telling Scout that she should not judge Cunningham, even though he is a member of a lynch mob. Atticus’s calm claim that it’s not really possible to change anyone’s mind is not something that Civil Rights activists were prepared to accept. For them, social structures had to be changed so that minds could be changed.

About the lynch mob, Wick noted that Lee soft pedals the threat of white violence, essentially giving us what he called a “Disney lynch mob.” It’s a fantasy to think that a little girl could have caused one of these mobs to experience a sense of shame and turn from their purpose. The historical truth of the matter was that the constant threat of white violence, especially from the KKK, helped keep Jim Crow laws in place.

In a way, Wick said, To Kill a Mockingbird reframed the Civil Rights era in such a way that whites were still the ones in charge, with blacks still humbly subservient. Wick saw the book as being useful in 1960 to at least get whites engaged in Civil Rights, but he also said that black criticism of it was legitimate.

As Wick saw it, James Baldwin’s Blues For Mister Charlie, written four years after To Kill a Mockingbird, was a black refutation of Lee’s novel. Blues, like Mockingbird, has a trial at its center—a white racist murders a black activist and is brought before a judge—and in this work the white liberal (Parnell) doesn’t rise magisterially above everyone else. Rather, he discovers he has divided loyalties and is pulled in different directions by Whitetown and Blacktown. He thinks he can ride things out by remaining neutral, but his neutrality allows the racist to get away with murder. For his pains, Parnell is mistrusted by both sides.

In other words, in Blues for Mr. Charlie Blacktown doesn’t rise up in reverence for the white liberal. Once Parnell realizes the consequence of his neutrality, he asks if he can march with Blacktown and receives grudging permission.  Parnell is a far cry from Atticus.

By the late 1960s, Wick said, white liberals wouldn’t even get this much acceptance as they were vilified by black militants (for instance, by Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice) and satirized by Tom Wolfe (in Radical Chic). The deeper Wick got into the project, the more he found his own white liberalism under siege.

What interested me particularly about the project was the position Wick came to in the end. He could see both the importance of books like To Kill a Mockingbird—after all, whites needed some place to start—and the limitations. He also noted that black militancy, while understandable, had its own limitations. As a political science as well as an English major, Wick charted the political balancing act between liberalism and radicalism that was needed to bring about significant change.

Through it all, literature played a pivotal role, helping define the terrain upon which the Civil Rights battles were fought.

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