Obama’s Ingenious Mention of Atticus Finch

The president’s farewell speech evoked a flawed American icon—perhaps to remind America of the best version of itself.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

“If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation,” Barack Obama said in his farewell address last night, “each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch.”

He then quoted Finch: “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 the moment, it occurred to some viewers that Finch also provided less-palatable quotes on diversity. Like, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one civilization and have a social Arcadia?” Like, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?” Like, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

The vision of Atticus Finch that Obama referenced was the upstanding one that Americans have idolized for decades, naming their sons and bars and T-shirt companies after him. That Finch is the lawyer and father of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, who in the 1930s South defended a black man wrongly accused of rape and generally stood as a beacon of decency and tolerance.

But Finch all along has been a more complicated figure than many recognize, with one line of academic inquiry arguing him as a paternalistic figure. Seeming to confirm that reading, in 2015 Finch’s reputation took a hit with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a newly unearthed manuscript by Lee telling of Mockingbird’s characters 20 years after that novel’s events. It wasn’t a sequel but rather a draft set apparently in a different reality, with details contradicting those of Mockingbird. And in it, an adult Scout Finch returns to Maycomb County, Alabama, to find her father, now 72, has become an outspoken racist. The novel follows her struggle to reconcile what she had seen in childhood with what had become of her dad and her hometown, where the civil rights movement had inflamed white hatred.

It’s unlikely that Obama, or at least his speechwriters, didn’t know about these highly-publicized complications for Atticus Finch. But it is possible they calculated that for most Americans, the enduring image of Finch is the one set by To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, not the one from Go Set a Watchman. It’s also possible some more nuanced signaling was going on—a call for understanding with Trump supporters, and a call for the renewal of battered American ideals.

The Finch quote came during a portion of Obama’s speech devoted to how racial tension poses a threat to democracy. While many of his remarks addressed the white majority that elected Donald Trump, he also asked Americans who’ve been discriminated against to show some empathy toward many of their antagonists. “Blacks and other minorities” should be “tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face,” he said, including that of “the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.”

That admonition is much the kind of rhetoric that has often frustrated Obama’s liberal critics who say that he’s been too evenhanded, too willing to engage in false equivalencies, to fully call out American racism. His speech took at least one shot at those critics: “I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.” By invoking Finch in the same section where he asked for empathy toward resentful white men, he is doubling down: For America to overcome the prejudices of people as bitter as the Watchman version of Finch, those people need to be understood.

Whether you agree with that thought or not, it’s a clever use of literary reference to push back at Obama’s critics to the left who’ve read his focus on incrementalism and individual change as capitulation. Many of those critics might have written off Finch even pre-Watchman; Obama might have countered them by saying, not for the first time in his public life, that each person’s empathy matters even in the face of an unjust system.

More than anything, though, the invocation of a flawed American icon’s enduring, big-hearted bit of wisdom underlines what Obama’s message was throughout the speech. Go Set a Watchman told of a time of supposed progress—desegregation—that was met with furious, disheartening backlash. Obama’s words last night would have offered Scout comfort in the 1950s just as they offered comfort for his supporters in January 2017: “For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.  But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”

Obama was not necessarily denying the troubling person Atticus Finch may have become, just as he was not denying the country’s troubling situation now. But he was calling on America to ensure that the best version of itself, and the best versions of its heroes, remerges.