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We ignore Atticus Finch at our own risk

Courtesy of Cap Stewart
Courtesy of Cap Stewart

If you want to learn more about current race relations in our country, it would be beneficial to learn about race relations in decades — and even centuries — past. That has been my perspective, at least. Reading modern-day books on race is fine, but one of my goals is to have a more historically-cognizant perspective on the problem of racism in the United States.

As is often stated, those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Ignorance of past errors can easily lead to misdiagnoses of, and erroneous remedies to, current societal ills. Because of this problem, I have, over the past several months, been reading the works of abolitionists and civil rights leaders from times past — people like Frederick Douglas, Charles W. Chesnutt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Howard Griffin.

In so doing, I am reminded of the advice Atticus Finch gave in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird: “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.” In that same spirit, John Howard Griffin writes, “Black men told me that the only way a white man could hope to understand anything about [the practice of racism against black Americans] was to wake up some morning in a black man’s skin.”

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Griffin took the counsel of these black men, and of Atticus Finch, quite literally: he underwent a medical procedure to darken his pigmentation so he could pass as a black man on the streets of the segregated South. His documented experiences, published in the book Black Like Me, are both fascinating and sobering.

In the book’s epilogue, Griffin provides commentary, not only of his own civil rights activism, but also the cultural climate in which he worked. I find Griffin’s perspective incredibly relevant. In fact, his evaluation of the 50s and 60s includes numerous connections with our own era.

Not to say the 21st century is identical to the late 1900s. It most certainly is not. We have made advancements and genuine progress as a nation since then. But we ignore lingering racial problems to our own detriment.

Some specific examples are in order. Below are excerpts from the epilogue of Black Like Me, and how these excerpts relate to our own current cultural climate. Quotes from the book are in bold, with my commentary in regular format.

“People like Martin Luther King, they [white men] said, were just troublemakers and subversives. Whites told their black employees, and really believed it, that the NAACP and Martin Luther King were the black man’s greatest enemies. They were offended by any suggestion of injustice. . . . How easy it was to destroy a man’s good name and reputation by suggesting he was in some way subversive or by calling him a communist” (167, 169).

These days, if you express concern over existing racial disparities in the justice system in particular or society in general, you are likely to be accused of Marxism. Modern-day civil rights activists and organizations are also quickly labeled as either Marxist, or subversive to the American way of life, or the real enemies of racial peace — or all of the above.                                                                                                                          

“In every city I was brought in to study…[I would warn] them that black resentments and frustrations were explosive and that one day some little insignificant event would occur and produce an explosion that would astound the whole community. . . 

“And when the matches were tossed and the powder kegs began to explode in 1967, men hid behind the belief that it was all some massive subversive plot against this nation. The Kerner Commission was established and [its] report…showed that…these [riots] were individual explosions, not connected through any discernible subversive plotting on the part of black men. The Commission report warned that massive displays of force in so-called riot control was one of the deepest sources of resentment and could trigger off more riots. . . . [Our national leaders] simply cast its recommendations aside with the remark: ‘The report blamed everyone but the rioters.’ Black spokesmen countered by saying that to blame the rioters would be like blaming the powder keg that exploded” (181, 182).

People are still astounded at how George Floyd’s death has sparked such a large public outcry against racism. After all, the video footage of Floyd’s last moments appears to show no blatant form of racial animus. However, an analogous situation might be a simmering conflict between a husband and wife that slowly escalates with subtle verbal jabs over a period of several days, finally erupting into a shouting match when the husband makes one particularly snide comment. It isn’t just one isolated insult from the husband that causes an avalanche of emotion from the wife. Similarly, civil rights activists have pointed out that the George Floyd situation was simply the last straw in a huge pile of straws.

Without this understanding, many Americans have interpreted the national riots as evidence of a massive and subversive plot against our nation. And if a civil rights activist today tries to explain the catalyst of the riots (even while condemning the riots), they are told, “You’re blaming everyone for the riots except the rioters.” It’s the same back-and-forth that took place during the days of Martin Luther King and John Howard Griffin.

“The patterns of the exploding inner cities began to emerge. From the black man’s viewpoint it often looked as though black people were being driven to a flare-up which would then justify suppression by white men on the grounds of ‘self-defense’” (182).

Protestors and rioters point to police brutality and racial injustice as reasons (or excuses, or justifications) for their actions. After all, they say, society is turning a deaf ear to their cries. And as riots and violence persist, many American citizens are justifying, or excusing, escalated and retaliatory force on grounds of self-defense.

“On the streets, young black men would call out, ‘Take ten!’ to one another. . . . What they were really saying was that this country was moving toward the destruction of black people, and since the proportion was ten whites to every black, then black men should take ten white lives for every black life taken by white men” (183).

On the streets today, activist are calling for the dismantling of the police force, expressing even outright hatred for and violence against police. The vitriol appears both meaningless and extreme to outsiders. But this “meaningless and extreme” response (which, to be sure, is undeniably wrong) is not dissimilar from the “take ten” calls for retributive justice in the 1960s.

There are more passages I could quote, but the above is an adequate sampling for now. Suffice it to say, Griffin’s experience illustrates how right Atticus Finch was: sometimes it is impossible to understand a person until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it. We may not be in a position to take Griffin’s literal approach. Nevertheless, we can — and should — more diligently consider things from other points of view — including those who speak to us from times, places, and experiences different from our own.

Cap Stewart is the author of the curriculum Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. As a cultural commentator, he has contributed to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic, 2019), among other print and online publications. He has been blogging at since 2006.

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