Lesson

Race and Social Change: Atticus and His Historical Contemporaries

Overview

Note: We recommend that teachers using Mockingbird and Watchman in the classroom acknowledge and set guidelines for how to approach the racial epithets that appear in both novels. The section Discussing Sensitive Topics in the Classroom from Teaching Mockingbird provides useful guidance, including links to additional readings and resources. We also recommend reviewing Fostering a Reflective Classroom from Teaching Mockingbird for suggestions for creating classroom contracts that include guidelines for respectful, reflective classroom discussions.


The plot of Go Set a Watchman turns on Jean Louise’s discovery that Atticus is a leader of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. Mockingbird and Watchman are independent creations, but the father and “gentleman” Jean Louise describes in Watchman is in many ways consistent with Harper Lee’s portrayal of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. And yet, readers who come to Watchman familiar with the upright Atticus at the moral center of Mockingbird may share Jean Louise’s sense of confusion, anger, and betrayal.

The readings in this collection bring us into the world of the South in the 1950s (when Lee wrote both novels and where she situated Watchman). Excerpts from David Halberstam’s Commentary article, "White Citizens Councils" and from Robert Penn Warren’s book Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, both published in 1956, illuminate the ways in which many white southerners reacted to the prospect of social change. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” responds to criticisms, like those voiced by characters in Go Set a Watchman, that African Americans were too impatient in their demands for civil rights. By putting a key scene from Go Set a Watchman in conversation with these historical documents, we can examine the complexities of Atticus’s character and explore the challenges of social change both in the 1950s and in our world today.

Context

Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman in the mid-1950s and set the novel in her contemporary world. In this pivotal era for civil rights, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, campaigned to end racial discrimination, and the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in schools in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In the South, these events met with tremendous resistance, including the development of White Citizens’ Councils, an associated network of white-supremacist organizations. The novel reflects this time of social turmoil. Aunt Alexandra remarks on the transformation of Maycomb’s black population, saying, “Besides being shiftless now they look at you sometimes with open insolence, and as far as depending on them goes, why that’s out. . . . That NAACP’s come down here and filled ’em with poison till it runs out of their ears.”

This lesson can be used to augment Section 6 or 7 of Teaching Mockingbird.

Materials

Citations

  • 1Go Set a Watchman page numbers correspond to 2015 edition by HarperCollins, 978-0-06-240985-0.

Activities

I. Use the following questions to explore the featured excerpt from Go Set a Watchman. The first two questions can be used for journaling before a class discussion to help students collect their thoughts. You might also want to consider using a Close Reading Protocol to help students purposefully reread the text to deepen comprehension. If you plan to begin by reading the text aloud, you may want to use the audiobook, since the excerpt is fairly long.

  1. In this scene from Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise confronts Atticus about his participation in the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. How would you describe the tone of this scene? What words in the text reveal Jean Louise’s feelings about her father’s involvement?
  2. How does Atticus explain his participation in the Maycomb Citizens’ Council? What arguments does he make to justify his choice? Do his arguments have merit?
  3. How is the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman different from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird? How are the two versions of the character similar? What evidence can you find in Mockingbird to support the idea that the Atticus of Watchman is the same man? What evidence might you use to argue that these are two different characters?
  4. Jean Louise tells Atticus, “I’ve never in my life seen you give that insolent, back-of-the-hand treatment half the white people down here give to Negroes just when they’re talking to them . . . Yet you put your hand in front of them as a people and say ‘Stop here. This is as far as you can go!’” What problem is Jean Louise voicing? How might you account for this seeming contradiction in Atticus’s attitudes and beliefs?
  5. Both Jean Louise and Atticus repeatedly use the words “they” and “them” as they argue about race relations in the South. What do these words denote? What is their connotation? What might Jean Louise’s use of the word “them” suggest about her attitude toward African Americans?

II. Have students read and discuss the excerpts from David Halberstam’s The White Citizens Councils and Robert Penn Warren’s Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South to provide historical context for the character of Atticus in Watchman.

  1. What range of reactions to desegregation do you see in the Halberstam and Warren excerpts? Do these sources connect to or extend your thinking about Atticus?

III. Reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail provides a different perspective on race relations and civil rights during this period.

  1. In Watchman, Jean Louise’s friend Henry Clinton says that the Maycomb Citizens’ Council is “a sort of warning to the Negroes for them not to be in such a hurry.” How does Martin Luther King respond to a similar criticism about civil rights advocates being too impatient in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? What new perspective on the struggle for civil rights does this document offer?
  2. How does King describe “the white moderate” in his letter? Do any characters in Mockingbird or Watchman fit this description?

IV. Section 6 of Teaching Mockingbird focuses on justice and what citizens must do to create a just and democratic society. Use the readings in this lesson to develop a broader and deeper perspective on ideas about justice. These questions can be used for discussion or reflective writing.

  1. What ideas about justice are conveyed by the speakers in these texts? How might you compare and contrast the ideas put forth by Atticus, Jean Louise, Robert Penn Warren’s interviewees, and Martin Luther King? What do these perspectives add to your thinking about justice?
  2. What do these sources suggest about the challenges of making social change? What is the role of laws? What is the role of the hearts and minds of citizens?

Extensions

I. Go Set a Watchman created a literary sensation when it was published in July 2015. Explore the varied reactions to Watchman by reading these four reviews. Then consider the questions below. (You may also want to revisit the critical response to Mockingbird in 1960, from a then-unknown author, included in Teaching Mockingbird, Handout 7.1.)

Boston Globe review by Joni Rodgers

Guardian review by Sarah Churchwell

The Atlantic review by Sophie Gilbert

New York Times op-ed by Isabel Wilkerson

  1. Go Set a Watchman was reviewed in dozens of publications around the world and inspired thousands of tweets, blog posts, and conversations. How do you account for the passionate response to this novel by readers and critics?
  2. What range of opinions is presented here? How do the reviewers understand the connection between To Kill a Mockingbird and Watchman? How do they connect Watchman to our world today?
  3. If you have read all of Watchman, which reviews connect to your own thinking about the novel? Which reviews extend your thinking? Do any of the perspectives in these reviews challenge your ideas or lead you to reconsider your initial reactions to the book?

II. Although Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, the two novels share the setting of Maycomb, characters like Jean Louise and Atticus, and overlapping themes. Students who read both novels in their entirety can compare the character and experiences of Scout/Jean Louise in the two books using these questions.

  1. How does Scout “come of age” in Mockingbird, and how do her experiences in Watchman extend your thinking about what it means to come of age?
  2. In Mockingbird, Scout is portrayed as a “tomboy” who defies expectations about how girls should dress and act. In Watchman, how does the adult Jean Louise continue to negotiate unwritten rules about gender and what it means to be a woman?
  3. How do you respond to the assumptions and expectations people have about your gender? To what extent do you embrace and reflect them? To what extent do you reject them?

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