The revelation from Harper Lee’s recently released novel “Go Set A Watchman” which caught so many by surprise—that the civil rights hero of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch, is a racist, was not particularly surprising to many of us Southerners—that is, to those of us who have our own Uncle Atticuses tucked away in our attics.
My family’s Uncle Atticus was my dad’s big brother and Dad idolized him. He shared quite a few characteristics with the Atticus played by Gregory Peck in the Mockingbird movie. Tall and handsome, my Uncle Atticus had a commanding physical presence. When he spoke on a subject he had studied, he articulated that velvet eloquence of no particular hurry, peculiar to orators of the Deep South. He got a ride to college on a football scholarship and earned a law degree at the University of South Carolina. A World War II and Korean War veteran, he left the US Air Force as an officer with a promising military career ahead of him. He was, to me, a kind of Hemingway figure—he hunted big game in Alaska—drank whiskey straight from the bottle—and believed men ruled—white men.
Uncle Atticus established a highly regarded law firm, one that my family had designs for me to join, in the city where a professional legal building bore his name. Over his long and successful practice as an attorney, he represented many African-Americans in court—defending their rights with exceptional resolve and diligence, up in the ugly face of Jim Crow. The people elected Uncle Atticus to the House of Representatives—that same venerable institution that recently voted to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds.
It is impossible to imagine, however, that my Uncle Atticus would have voted with the overwhelming majority on that historic Confederate flag legislation. He was a staunch member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and, like his father who was an Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, had an intractable belief that people of every color of the rainbow are superior—as long as they are white.
I used to marvel at his racism. He was quite educated and had a strong Christian faith. Earning a masters degree in New Testament studies after he met Jesus Christ, he religiously taught the Good Book in Sunday School. And yet, he remained faithful to his belief that all men were granted rights from their Creator—and the race that he belonged to had been intelligently designed superior over all the other races. He once told me that he walked out of his Presbyterian church one day and never looked back when a black man took a seat in the pews. It amazed me to think he might actually believe that the Kingdom of Heaven was going to be segregated, with the white saints occupying the higher seats at the Great Banquet. The last time I saw Uncle Atticus alive was at the homecoming of a Methodist church that our family established over 220 years ago—I believe he stayed outside during the worship service that day because my own wife, who is Chinese, was in the building.
His funeral service was held inside a Lutheran church full of all-white congregants. When his body was transported a few miles up the road to the burial site, armed military guards from Fort Jackson were at attention ready to put him to bed. The soldiers, dressed immaculate, comported themselves impeccably. They fired volleys with their rifles up toward heaven. Dad wept when a lone bugle, off in the distance, blew the haunting taps. Standing at the side of Uncle Atticus’s coffin, two soldiers carefully folded an American flag with solemn precision—they passed the triangular cloth to a third soldier who, kneeling at the feet of Uncle Atticus’s widow, pressed it into her lap, spoke softly to her, then stood up and saluted her with such exquisite poignancy, I nearly swooned. I saw one of my cousins with her mouth dropped wide open. It was my Uncle Atticus’s final tribute—how perfectly fitting that the trusted guard who administered it was a young black female soldier.
I loved Uncle Atticus; but I could barely conceal my rebel delight in the irony of those unforgettable moments. If you watched the ceremony of the Confederate flag being taken down on the South Carolina State House grounds you may have been somewhat similarly amused that it was a black man from the Honor Guard who handed it over to the president of the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, where the flag will be at ease, permanently on public display.
In the end, the spirit in the forces behind the Confederate flag, the racial certitude from our Uncle Atticuses, and every lofty ideology we hold dear, are eventually lowered back down to earth—only God remains constant— from on high—forever over all.