U.S. Intellectual History Blog

To Kill A Mockingbird and Civil Rights Drama

The following guest post is by Peter Kuryla, associate professor of history at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee

The recent publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has generated some discussion over the depiction of Atticus Finch in its pages. Atticus appears in the book as a segregationist and a racist, troubling many fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, who have long seen him as a liberal hero. Given the emerging controversy, I thought readers of this blog might find some insights into the book/film and its historical context interesting.

What follows are cut and pasted sections from a chapter in The Imagined Civil Rights Movement, my book manuscript in progress. Portions of what follows also appeared in an article for the journal Patterns of Prejudice published by Taylor and Francis in February 2009. I refer readers to that article for a fuller treatment of the issues considered here. In that article and in the book chapter, I argue that courtroom melodramas like To Kill a Mockingbird transformed cultural imaginings of the civil rights movement. If many viewers recoiled at the violence meted out by Southern authorities during classic movement demonstrations, the widespread consumption of courtroom melodramas at the same time eased that discomfort, giving more recent imaginings a more “palatable” frame of reference. The first section of the chapter (not included here) offers a thorough accounting of the how images of civil rights demonstrations, by showing black bodies being violated, amounted, in cultural terms, to symbolic reversals of the terms of spectacle lynching in the past.To Kill

Given that this will appear in a much larger chapter as part of a much larger project, I hope readers will forgive any underdeveloped or incomplete ideas or references. I’m happy to address such things in comments.

On March 7, 1965, the Sunday night film on ABC television was Judgment at Nuremburg, a courtroom melodrama featuring an all-star cast: Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark and Marlene Dietrich (among others). The film, first released in 1961, was about the postwar trials of German jurists who had served under the Nazi regime. Being a legal drama about officials in a morally compromised legal system, the relationship between the idea of the law and a larger metaphysical sphere of justice was among the central preoccupations of the movie, as was the problem of historical reconciliation (given its setting at Nuremburg). For many people watching it in 1965, the events that had transpired in the American South in the years immediately preceding that night made it a timely film in more than a few ways. Lest ABC viewers miss any potential parallels between Nazi Germany and the segregationist South, this particular showing of Judgment was interrupted by breaking news footage of civil rights marchers being attacked by Selma police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the events that would become known as the American “Bloody Sunday” in civil rights lore. [1]

This event was one of those historical coincidences that make for great color when telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps there was more to it than that. The juxtaposition of a courtroom melodrama with a violent attack against demonstrators revealed a great deal about the cultural logic of an imagined Civil Rights Movement, where images, especially of the provocative variety, generated monumental moral lessons. After all, along with the narrative strategies and conventions activists and historians used to make sense of their experiences, the images of demonstrations form an indelible part of the imagined movement, whether or not people remember the details of specific campaigns. Although not the most empirically satisfying measure of this, in my own classroom, I have often started teaching the Civil Rights Movement by asking students for their immediate impressions: what images or proper names come to mind when someone says “the Civil Rights Movement”? Invariably, (and this is true for both white students and men and women of color) I get responses that have to do with fire hoses, dogs, or white Southern authorities in riot-gear attacking African American protesters. These demonstrations amounted to powerfully memorable moral performances, different from and yet not completely unlike the performances of crusading lawyers in courtrooms. The juxtaposition of this particular film with the events of Bloody Sunday suggests that when it came to the representation of the demonstrations, violent, socially disruptive depictions of movement activism were imagined alongside more conservative, legally affirming ideas of such things, potentially undermining any clear moral opposition between those two perspectives, or at least leaving the tensions between them stubbornly unresolved.

The fortuitous collision of a courtroom melodrama with a political demonstration in March of 1965 also highlighted, in largely inchoate form, thorny political problems having to do with historical sequence and agency. For example, students of the movement know that the conflict in the spring of 1963 between protesters and police in Birmingham, Alabama involved civil disobedience, as the SCLC decided to violate a court injunction barring them from demonstrating, thereby forcing a confrontation with local authorities. If we follow a political narrative of the movement in broad terms, one outcome of the protesters’ decision was the raising of national awareness, thus forcing the Kennedy administration’s hand in a way that ultimately contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act over a year later under the Johnson Administration. Likewise, the violence against protesters in March 1965 in Selma, Alabama and the widely published march to Montgomery that followed it prompted Lyndon Johnson to push through the legislation for the Voting Rights Act in May of the same year. In other words, activists, by means of direct action, and according to principles of civil disobedience, hastened national civil rights legislation. So a clear connection has come to exist between the movement as the most dedicated nonviolent activists understood it—as being on a higher spiritual and moral plane than established law—and the way that most sympathetic lawmakers understood it—as an affirmation of the genius and adaptability of the American system of laws to the calling of justice.

Distinctions like these lay at the heart of Judgment at Nuremburg and were clearly at work on the Pettus Bridge. In monumental terms, the lesson from all of this is that grassroots activism can work, and that a good legal system, at certain critical moments, can accommodate the moral demands of long overdue justice, doing the work of historical reconciliation. But the story gets far more complex than this when considered with the antiquarian’s eye for detail. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had unique political histories, as did the protest movements that arose in Birmingham or Selma, and the particulars make the precise relationship between demonstrations and national legislative action exceedingly difficult to work out. In other words, the protests did not create the legislation ex nihilo, and national legislation was hardly the activists’ sole intention. In cities all over the South, black people and their supporters had been working for social change long before the demonstrations garnered national attention, and their efforts, along with those of national civil rights organizations, had both characteristically local and global aims (the end of discriminatory practices at the local level, the awakening of Americans’ moral conscience, etc.). Likewise, lawmakers and advocates of civil rights at the national level had been working on versions of those two pieces of legislation long before the events in Birmingham or Selma garnered national media coverage. In other words, the relationship between the law and the stage could be exceedingly complex.

In December 1962, just over a year after Judgment in Nuremberg and only a few months before the violence in Birmingham hit newspapers and television screens, the immensely popular film version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird appeared in movie houses across the country. Lee’s novel, published in 1960, continues to inspire some measure of controversy, although it remains a staple of high school English classes. [2] It has been argued that both the film and the novel, signal examples of mid-century racial liberalism as moral “testimony” in the United States, constituted “one reason why the civil rights gospel eventually found fertile ground.” [3]

And perhaps, once seized by black activists, the ground quickly shifted under the celebratory, “consensus” liberalism of the mid-century United States .[4] The moral world that Lee imagined in Mockingbird, namely that of Scout, who narrates events during her girlhood from the more mature remove of adulthood, is spun out of the nurturing if eccentric (read: educated) Southern home she lives in with her father Atticus, her brother Jem and their black housekeeper Calpurnia in the mid-1930s. Atticus, an enlightened white Southern lawyer, pursues the calling of individual bourgeois conscience, defending Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of the rape of a white woman in the racist Southern hamlet of Maycomb, Alabama, despite knowing he is “licked” from the start in a legal system peopled largely by the racially prejudiced.

In a rather commonplace reading of the text, the good will and color-blind liberalism of Southerners like Atticus—who reminds the jury that “in this country our courts are the great levelers and in our courts all men are created equal” (205)—quickly collapsed by the middle of the 1960s in favor of complexity and racial particularism, especially of the kind envisioned by advocates of Black Power or depicted outside courtrooms and in the chaotic spaces of urban rebellion. To be fair, the historical setting for Lee’s novel is at best a short remove from the period that witnessed the highest instances of public lynching in the South—Atticus’s courage in that context is very real—but the novel itself appeared well after the experience of the Second World War and the revelations of the Holocaust, which had transformed many Americans’ racial thinking. In that limited sense, the people who read To Kill a Mockingbird were far more prepared to accept it in 1960 than would have been the case twenty-five years earlier. Atticus Finch’s defense of the “mockingbird” Tom Robinson—defenseless by virtue of being accused by a white woman in the segregated South, a man with a withered left arm, who “if he had been whole . . . would have been a fine physical specimen”—was suffused with a type of liberal paternalism that by the middle and late 1960s was unacceptable for many African American activists and spokespersons. [5] Thus Atticus Finch shared the courage but also the shortsightedness of many of his historical liberal contemporaries at mid-century and in the early 1960s. [6]

Rather than embrace fully this reading, I would like to suggest that To Kill a Mockingbird, along with Judgment at Nuremberg and countless other courtroom dramas, in fiction and in film, not only provided “fertile ground” for many Americans’ acceptance of the civil rights movement, but also greatly influenced their understanding of the civil rights demonstration, so that the demonstrations themselves became rather simplistic racial melodramas in which the activists’ symbolic reversal of the lynching ritual became commodified in a much more palatable form. In effect, the legal space of the courtroom melodrama was mapped on to the streets and public squares of the civil rights demonstration. More recently, we see this phenomenon in the realm of popular culture, in which Hollywood film treatments of the civil rights era, such as the screen adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill (essentially a less accomplished potboiler version of Lee’s novel set in the more recent past) or the film Mississippi Burning (the woefully distorted story of the FBI’s hunt for the killers of three civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi), tend to depict crusading Whites battling racial injustice rather than stories that feature activists and their exploits. [7]

Media coverage of the demonstrations may have played a partial role here, particularly because news stories in whatever format were and are invariably packaged for public consumption. Through photographs and film footage, reporters of the civil rights movement attempted to capture instances of real time, very often depicting violence, but conditioned by the format of modern newscasts, the necessity of editing and the choices of the photographer or cameraperson. Obviously photographs and, more importantly, television newscasts are not unmediated signifieds, free of any imbedded context. Captions and narrative stories accompany news photographs. Television journalism is similarly framed, so that moving images inhabit a place in an individual piece or story, existing within a larger, structured format. “Breaking news” may interrupt planned programming on television, creating odd juxtapositions or more fortunate ones, an accidental narrative structure of sorts. Breaking news of the violence on the Pettus Bridge, for example, by interrupting the broadcasting of Judgment at Nuremberg, gave viewers a narrative framework on which to hang their experience. One viewer of the Bloody Sunday images remembered:

The pictures were not particularly good. With the cameras rather far removed from the action and the skies partly overcast everything that happened took on the quality of an old newsreel. Yet this very quality, vague and half-silhouetted, gave the scene the immediacy of a dream. [8]

Dreamt or imagined, with almost overwhelming consistency, the images of violence offered on television and in photographs showed stoic African Americans being brutally attacked. As narrative, this translated to a simplistic reading of the civil rights movement: good versus evil, and long, patient struggle and forbearance.

To Kill a Mockingbird offered little to challenge such a caricature. In the segregated courtroom in Maycomb, as African Americans waited for the jury’s ruling, Scout relates: “In the balcony, the Negroes sat and stood around with biblical patience” (209). The verdict for which the black spectators wait “with biblical patience,” presumably a bellwether of the pace of racial change in Maycomb and in the South writ large, inevitably lies with Whites alone, who dominate the processes of Jim Crow institutions. Change will come when led by respectable white Southerners in alliance with “respectable” African Americans, within the experience of community and nurtured by individual relationships. Attending the African Methodist Episcopal church with Calpurnia, the Finch children confront Lula, a parishioner who thinks that white children have no place in a black church. Calpurnia’s son Zeebo defuses the conflict, telling Jem and Scout: “She’s a troublemaker from way back, got all kinds of fancy ideas an’ haughty ways—we’re mighty glad to have you all” (119).

Childhood innocence can also mitigate potentially explosive racial divisions. In the days leading up to the trial, Scout stops an assembled lynch mob that confronts Atticus, then on night watch in front of Tom Robinson’s jail cell downtown. With naive candor, she appeals to the relationship between her father and one of the members of the lynch mob, Mr. Cunningham, who had needed Atticus’s services for an entailment. By, in effect, saving Tom Robinson’s life, Scout, according to her father, “proves something—that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human” (157).

Courage, then, for Atticus Finch is non-violent, and lethal violence is only a matter of last resort. Protecting his family, he reluctantly puts down, with a single shot, a rabid dog that threatens the neighborhood because the sheriff lacks the requisite aim to do it humanely. Once the “dead shot” of Maycomb, who had refused the gun for years, Atticus warns his son Jem against “getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand,” at once preserving his manhood and reinforcing his status. And Jem, in a “jubilant” mood remarks: “Atticus is a gentleman, just like me” (99). The son is impressed by the father’s ability to resist the impulse to use violence, but even more, to obscure his prowess with a shotgun. That Atticus is a “dead shot” needs no broadcasting; it’s a well-known fact among the older townsfolk, and the smug satisfaction derived from that unspoken knowledge gives Jem a feeling of superiority. Rather than a lifestyle or an encompassing philosophy, as conceived of by some leading civil rights activists, non-violence in this context is not provocative; it functions here as an indicator of status, of restraint and bourgeois respectability for Whites and, it follows, “biblical patience” for African Americans.

From this sort of context, civil rights demonstrations could emerge as melodramas featuring the iconic image of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the central personality in an American and even worldwide popular historical narrative (complete with a national holiday after 1983), obscuring the diverse forms of protest and organizing that typified the movement, and largely dismissing King’s more radical pronouncements. As with lynching, where highly choreographed, ritualized public displays constituted only a small minority of white on black vigilante murder, so Birmingham and Selma, structured within a context of courtroom melodramas, caricatured the efforts of countless, largely unnoticed activists. Yet, the American news media were never entirely comfortable with scenes of violence in the South. Many in the media condemned “unnecessary confrontation,” distancing themselves from King when his more radical tendencies revealed themselves, and embracing him when he acted with the restraint of Atticus Finch by siding against less “patient” figures like Fannie Lou Hamer or Malcolm X. [9] Edward P. Morgan has summed up the problem:

As the protester’s grievances shifted from the blatant racism of the South to national institutions steeped in legitimizing ideology, their grievances were invariably minimized, typically replaced by a pejorative focus on the protesters themselves. This interaction helped set in motion a dynamic that effectively widened the psychological distance between protesters and broader national audiences. [10]

Many Americans and their media, it follows, could now conceptualize civil rights demonstrations in more comfortable, controlled spaces, such as courtrooms, with which they were more recently familiar. But the formalized space of the courtroom defied in many ways the intentions of the activists, who often conceptualized their protests to include a structural indictment of “national institutions steeped in legitimizing ideology,” rather like what the activist James Lawson called “lynching of souls.”

This was especially true for the spiritual component of the non-violent protest, properly conceived, in which the gap between popular understandings and the philosophical underpinnings of non-violent spirituality proved immensely problematic. In this instance the differences are striking. Drama inheres in American courtrooms because the events that take place there have a clearly defined and predictable sequence: opening statements, the accounts of witnesses for the defense and prosecution including cross- examination, final statements and period of deliberation by the jury, concluding with the verdict. (The tension ratchets up throughout before the verdict releases it.) The “message,” moreover, benefits by being an explicitly rational statement within an organized and ritualized set of circumstances carefully controlled and scripted.

Within the script, the rhetoric of the law maintains and reinforces a specious order by in effect obscuring or denying in some measure the larger social conflicts that exist outside the space of the courtroom. The courtroom drama, because of its dependence on formal sequence, creates a partial, artificial and self-contained narrative that supposes impartiality or a type of reasoning that is persuasive only by virtue of its being an actively created, compelling and believable narrative. The law in this sense creates a reality; it does not reconstruct the reality of circumstances that led to the trial in the first place. [11] Atticus’s moral victory in losing the Tom Robinson case, namely, the fact that he kept the jury deliberating for longer than ever before in a case (in which a white woman accuses a black man) doomed from the start in the South, comes up rather hollow. A supporting character’s observation that Maycomb was “making a step” towards change becomes somewhat contradictory, especially when juxtaposed with her contention that Atticus’s unique narrative skills had won the day, “the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that” (216). The trial was thus more of a demonstration of Atticus’s expertise and showmanship as an actor in a scripted legal drama and much less a barometer of Maycomb’s racial attitudes.

The product of the memorialization process that followed the demonstrations was a civil rights movement with the character of a script or a narrative imbued with the naive moral calculus of the courtroom melodrama and its insistent dramatic structure. While non-violent demonstrations were enormously effective in accomplishing at least some of the movement’s goals, the rich interpretive space inhabited by them contained within it various imaginings of the civil rights movement current in the United States today. The non-violent protest, when effective, harnessed violence by using and reversing key symbols from America’s violent, racially charged past, recasting the terms of the lynching ritual. Yet it left some of the dynamics of that past unresolved, since non-violence, particularly if filtered through the tropes of courtroom dramas like To Kill a Mockingbird, became subject to much more accommodating forms of public interpretation and consumption.

Peter Kuryla, Belmont University

[1] David Garrow, Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (New Haven: Yale University Press 1978), 78. See also David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow 1986). It’s safe to assume that Garrow refers here to the 1961 film, for which screenwriter Abby Mann and actor Maximilian Schell won Oscars in their respective categories, rather than the earlier CBS Playhouse 90 production. In any case, both stagings of Judgment used a Mann script.

[2] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird [1960] (New York: Warner Books 1982). Subsequent references to the novel will be given parenthetically in the text

[3] Harry L. Watson, “Front porch,” Southern Cultures, 6:2 (Summer 2000), 6.

[4] For a good summary of “liberal consensus,” by these lights, see Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time (New York: Doubleday 1976), 67-98.

[5] Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 192. The novelist James Baldwin’s sentiments were widely felt among the younger generation of black activists. In The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial 1962), Baldwin wrote: ‘there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forebearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary. The real reason nonviolence is considered a virtue in Negroes*/I am not speaking now of its racial value, another matter altogether*/is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened’ (73). In 1964 Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie (New York: Dial 1964), a tale of lynching and courtroom drama based on the Emmett Till murder, appeared on Broadway. Blues was a nightmarish reversal of the standard tropes of the Southern courtroom drama, in which the Atticus Finch character, the liberal newspaper editor Parnell, suffers from gnawing racial prejudice and hatred because of his sexual desire for black women. Despite overtures of good will towards the black community, he ultimately refuses to contradict the claims of the white woman accuser.

[6] For a more detailed very fine account of this interpretation, see Joseph Crespino, “The Strange Career of Atticus Finch,” Southern Cultures, 6:2 (Summer 2000), 9-29.

[7] See Ann Hornaday, “Waiting for ‘Action!’ Instead of Making Films about the Civil Rights Era, Hollywood Has Made Excuses’, Washington Post, 10 July 2007. On civil rights melodramas in this context, see Jennifer Fuller, “Debating the Present through the Past: Representations of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1990s,” in Romano and Raiford (eds), The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, 167-96. Clearly, the recent film Selma is a stunning corrective to this tendency.

[8] George B. Leonard, “Midnight Plane to Alabama: Journey of Conscience,” in Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding and Darlene Clark Hine (eds), The Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990 (New York: Penguin 1991), 213.

[9] Richard Lentz, quoted in Morgan, “The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten,” 149.

[10] Morgan, in Ibid., 149 (emphasis in the original).

[11] My reading here draws largely from the insights of critical legal theory. See Richard A. Posner, Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1988).

One Thought on this Post

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  1. Two thoughts.

    1) This idea of narrative and its relationship with the Civil Rights Movement has got me thinking. I wonder if you have come across a general preference when it comes to recalling, or interpreting moments from the Civil Rights Movement? Do you find people tend to be attracted to the melodramas? Or the larger contextual understanding of these events?

    2) The second thought is somewhat relatable to the first. It has to do with historical consciousness. Specifically, conservatives and their relationship with the CRM. Contemporary conservatives use the imagery of the Movement (more precisely Dr. MLK Jr. and his dream) with striking regularity sans a sense of irony. For example, the National Review was practically glowing with praise for the ’63 march on Washington in its 50th anniversary coverage two years ago. Of course, if one had read the magazine 50 years ago leading up to the same march, one might have imaged the Visigoths (or Gauls, pick your poison) descending on Washington DC. But not anymore! Now it was a noble movement. In a sense, they are writing a new narrative, hoping coeval readers have amnesia, so that they too can partake in the Movement. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, or how it relates to your post, but I’ll try to turn this into a question: in your experience, how much do contemporary political attitudes play into the historical consciousness of remembering something like the Civil Rights Movement–itself a social-political-economic movement? And would you care to add any thoughts about the Civil Rights Movement and historical consciousness?

    Final thought: you expose a fragility (whether intended or not) of remembering both the Civil Rights Movement and the attitudes and thoughts from those living at that time. Good work, Pete.

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