Why Is Atticus Racist In ‘Go Set A Watchman’?

go set a watchman, to kill a mockingbird, racist, bigot, harper lee, Gregory peck

(Gregory Peck & Brock Peters in To Kill A Mockingbird / Imgur)

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, sequel to 1960 literary classic To Kill A Mockingbird, came out today. Eager readers are wondering about the rumor that Atticus Finch, revered in her first book as a bastion of human civility, is now portrayed as a bigot.

According to a New York Times article about the new release:

Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

This provides a stark contrast to how his children, Scout and Jem, viewed Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird. In that book, Atticus said such things as:

“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.”

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

So why is beloved literary hero portrayed this way in Lee’s newest and presumably last novel?

There’s two reasons. One, because it was written before To Kill A Mockingbird. To Kill A Mockingbird grew out of short stories and other manuscripts written by Lee, assisted by her publisher to form a cohesive story that would market well to a racially divided 1960s America.

USA Today writes:

A number of critics say Watchman shines new light on Mockingbird, a classroom staple, and raises fascinating questions.

USA TODAY’s 2 (out of 4)-star review said, “If you think of Watchman as a young writer’s laboratory, it provides valuable insight into the generous, complex mind of one of America’s most important authors.”

The second answer is because the major theme of Go Set a Watchman is “disillusionment.” The New York Times concludes:

In “Mockingbird,” Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem — their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman,” he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she’s now known).


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Book Review
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

 Isaiah 21:6 reads: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” 

Other reviewers are presenting the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird as a bigot. However, I felt that the Watchman reference was Ms. Lee’s saying that everyone of us has a watchman inside of us as our conscience who speaks to us to do right by all that share this Earth. Atticus and Hank attended the “City Council” meetings—the current Political Force—even though they feel offended by some of the speeches so they would know who “he’d be fighting if the the time ever came to—he had to find out who they were….”(p. 230).

Atticus did a good job raising a daughter that was “color-blind” in a very small town that could be anywhere in the USA. So he was proud of a daughter that would stand up for others even against himself.

I really liked the story and the moral that Ms. Harper Lee once again “knocked out of the ball park.” She creates a great setting and characters with good hearts. I heartily recommend reading the story to go along with her To Kill a Mockingbird.

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