Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell: The Courthouse Ring - Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism

The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism.
by Malcolm Gladwell
The New Yorker

In 1954, when James (Big Jim) Folsom was running for a second term as governor of Alabama, he drove to Clayton, in Barbour County, to meet a powerful local probate judge. This was in the heart of the Deep South, at a time when Jim Crow was in full effect. In Barbour County, the races did not mix, and white men were expected to uphold the privileges of their gender and color. But when his car pulled up to the curb, where the judge was waiting, Folsom spotted two black men on the sidewalk. He jumped out, shook their hands heartily, and only then turned to the stunned judge. “All men are just alike,” Folsom liked to say.

Big Jim Folsom was six feet eight inches tall, and had the looks of a movie star. He was a prodigious drinker, and a brilliant campaigner, who travelled around the state with a hillbilly string band called the Strawberry Pickers. The press referred to him (not always affectionately) as Kissin’ Jim, for his habit of grabbing the prettiest woman at hand. Folsom was far and away the dominant figure in postwar Alabama politics—and he was a prime example of that now rare species of progressive Southern populist.

Folsom would end his speeches by brandishing a corn-shuck mop and promising a spring cleaning of the state capitol. He was against the Big Mules, as the entrenched corporate interests were known. He worked to extend the vote to disenfranchised blacks. He wanted to equalize salaries between white and black schoolteachers. He routinely commuted the death sentences of blacks convicted in what he believed were less than fair trials. He made no attempt to segregate the crowd at his inaugural address. “Ya’ll come,” he would say to one and all, making a proud and lonely stand for racial justice.

Big Jim Folsom left office in 1959. The next year, a young Southern woman published a novel set in mid-century Alabama about one man’s proud and lonely stand for racial justice. The woman was Harper Lee and the novel was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and one way to make sense of Lee’s classic—and of a controversy that is swirling around the book on the eve of its fiftieth anniversary—is to start with Big Jim Folsom.

The Alabama of Folsom—and Lee—was marked by a profound localism. Political scientists call it the “friends and neighbors” effect. “Alabama voters rarely identified with candidates on the basis of issues,” George Sims writes in his biography of Folsom, “The Little Man’s Best Friend.” “Instead, they tended to give greatest support to the candidate whose home was nearest their own.” Alabama was made up of “island communities,” each dominated by a small clique of power brokers, known as a “courthouse ring.” There were no Republicans to speak of in the Alabama of that era, only Democrats. Politics was not ideological. It was personal. What it meant to be a racial moderate, in that context, was to push for an informal accommodation between black and white.

“Big Jim did not seek a fundamental shift of political power or a revolution in social mores,” Sims says. Folsom operated out of a sense of noblesse oblige: privileged whites, he believed, ought to “adopt a more humanitarian attitude” toward blacks. When the black Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., came to Montgomery, on a voter-registration drive, Folsom invited him to the Governor’s Mansion for a Scotch-and-soda. That was simply good manners. Whenever he was accused of being too friendly to black people, Folsom shrugged. His assumption was that Negroes were citizens, just like anyone else. “I just never did get all excited about our colored brothers,” he once said. “We have had them here for three hundred years and we will have them for another three hundred years.”

Folsom was not a civil-rights activist. Activists were interested in using the full, impersonal force of the law to compel equality. In fact, the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended Folsom’s career, because the racial backlash that it created drove moderates off the political stage. The historian Michael Klarman writes, “Virtually no southern politician could survive in this political environment without toeing the massive resistance line, and in most states politicians competed to occupy the most extreme position on the racial spectrum.” Folsom lost his job to the segregationist John Patterson, who then gave way to the radical George Wallace. In Birmingham, which was quietly liberalizing through the early nineteen-fifties, Bull Connor (who notoriously set police dogs on civil-rights marchers in the nineteen-sixties) had been in political exile. It was the Brown decision that brought him back. Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

On what side was Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch? Finch defended Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of what in nineteen-thirties Alabama was the gravest of sins, the rape of a white woman. In the years since, he has become a role model for the legal profession. But he’s much closer to Folsom’s side of the race question than he is to the civil-rights activists who were arriving in the South as Lee wrote her novel.

Think about the scene that serves as the book’s centerpiece. Finch is at the front of the courtroom with Robinson. The jury files in. In the balcony, the book’s narrator—Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, or Scout, as she’s known—shuts her eyes. “Guilty,” the first of the jurors says. “Guilty,” the second says, and down the line: “guilty, guilty, guilty.” Finch gathers his papers into his briefcase. He says a quiet word to his client, gathers his coat off the back of his chair, and walks, head bowed, out of the courtroom.

“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle,” Scout relates, in one of American literature’s most moving passages:

“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” Finch tells his daughter. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He is never anything but gracious to his neighbor Mrs. Dubose, even though she considers him a “nigger-lover.” He forgives the townsfolk of Maycomb for the same reason. They are suffering from a “sickness,” he tells Scout—the inability to see a black man as a real person. All men, he believes, are just alike.

Here is where the criticism of Finch begins, because the hearts-and-minds approach is about accommodation, not reform. At one point, Scout asks him if it is O.K. to hate Hitler. Finch answers, firmly, that it is not O.K. to hate anyone. Really? Not even Hitler? When his children bring up the subject of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Maycomb, he shrugs: “Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare. They paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass. . . . Sam made ’em so ashamed of themselves they went away.” Someone in Finch’s historical position would surely have been aware of the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915. Frank was convicted, on dubious evidence, of murdering a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan. The prosecutor in the case compared Frank to Judas Iscariot, and the crowd outside the courthouse shouted, “Hang the Jew!” Anti-Semitism of the most virulent kind was embedded in the social fabric of the Old South. But Finch does not want to deal with the existence of anti-Semitism. He wants to believe in the fantasy of Sam Levy, down the street, giving the Klan a good scolding.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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