On Civil Rights, Mobs, and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

“A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr. Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know–doesn’t say much for them, does it?”― ‘Atticus Finch,’ explaining to his daughter how a neighbor can both be a decent person, and also an almost murderer, from Harper Lee’s, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’

1962 film version, that’s Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.


I don’t know if we’re ready to see the mob from this weekend as a group of people, but I can’t help trying.


We are furious. We are scared. We are weary.




We are clear-headed and certain of what is right. And we want change.


If we change the minds/hearts of an individual, and this mob is a bunch of individuals, don’t we dissolve the mob?


As always, I don’t know if I have any business saying “we,” or speaking on any of this, but I think I need to speak instead of stay silent. I might say something stupid in an effort to do right, but I’m trying, and I can be corrected. To be clear- I’m white. I’m privileged in a bazillion ways. I’m working on identifying and shrugging off my prejudices, but I know some are still there. I was raised here, after all. I’m not finished, but I’m ready to learn, and to fight for the protection and rights of African Americans. (If I should just STFU, I trust you’ll tell me.)


So, last weekend there was a protest of…I guess we’ll call them ‘white nationalists’ (Nazis, neo-Nazis, alt-right, white supremacists, right-wingers, Trump supports, all terms also being used to describe them) about a confederate statue coming down on a college campus in Virginia, and a counter-protest of…’civil rights activists’ we’ll call them (also being called anti-fastists, Black Lives Matter, left-wingers, alt-left, among others). There’s quarreling over some details, but as I understand it, the ‘white nationalists’ appeared as a mob of white people carrying torches and chanting things about taking back their country. They committed a murder of a ‘civil rights activist’ and injured a lot of others in organized hate crimes. There is a lot of criticism of how the government is handling it, and how they appear to be planning to prevent similar hate crimes in the future.


Right now I’m listening to Sissy Spacek read “To Kill a Mockingbird” through an audio book app on my phone. It’s beautifully written and read, and invigorating and soothing to hear inequities called out clearly. I never tire of  heroes doing their thing. But it’s also infuriating how unchanged the dangers and injustices are for African Americans.  The book was written in 1960, set in Alabama in the 1930s, and it feels eerily like it could take place today. Last weekend. In Virginia. Here. Anywhere.


In case you haven’t read it since high school, here’s the gist: A man who is African American is on trial for attacking a woman, who is white. There’s no proper evidence, so it’s just word against word, and guess who’s word counts for more?


The defendant, Tom Robinson, is a man of great character and strength, with an especially tragic backstory that would be a spoiler if I gave it away and you’re aiming to read this soon, so I’ll just say he’s good folk. He is in danger from the time he first encounters the accuser to after the trial’s finished, because regular white people in town hate him for daring to exist, and want to punish him, outside of the justice system. Inside the justice system, he doesn’t fare any better, with his only real ally being Atticus Finch (who’s got to be one of the most progressive characters in fiction, in self composure, social stance and parenting), his lawyer. No matter how innocent Tom is of the crime for which he’s on trial, he’s guilty, wrong, bad, and deserving of death, according to the town white people, because he’s not white.


I happen to be listening to the part about a mob over this past weekend when the real-time mob swept through that campus with their torches. In the book, white farmers come to the jail to try to abduct and lynch Tom several days before his trial, and Atticus was there waiting for them, attempting to stand up to them. He’s wise and brave and strong, but is about to lose his battle and the defendant’s life, when his 8 year-old daughter noses in and reminds one of the men in the mob that he once paid Atticus back for some legal help with some nuts that he’d gathered. And that she goes to school with his son, “Say ‘hey’ to Walter for me.” He drops his need to kill, and takes himself, and the other members of the mob, home. She reminded him of his grace, his heart, his humanity, and he couldn’t be hateful and violent anymore.


God, this might be simple, but in my own heart, in my own inside myself experience, I’ve felt it… love nudges hate out. Anger can be hosed down by feeling seen, feeling less alone, feeling cared for, or caring for another person. I’m guessing that’s a universal human truth.


The kids and I talk a lot about how people become bullies because they’re scared and insecure and feel alone, unloved, unworthy. I don’t know that you can distill Nazi/neo-Nazi/white-supremecist/bigoted/prejudiced/hateful/violent ideas and organized actions down to that…but where does that kind of hate come from, if not fear and insecurity?


A huge, terrifying mob is made up of people. I assume, scared, insecure, lonely, worried people. For some reason, it seems they’ve concluded that their spot in the world is guaranteed only by removing or reducing someone else’s. They need to believe that they’re part of the best, most powerful group, I suspect because they don’t feel best or powerful at all, individually.


Don’t show these criminals any special mercy. Hell, the fact that they marched with torches and weren’t gunned down by the police/military is mercy enough. They’re criminals. But what if, when they were 5, 10, 15 years old, they could have been cared for differently, healed of this? The ones who didn’t mob this weekend, but have been reading the propaganda, getting fed the hate, can’t their hearts be opened?


Am I being too soft? Does this sound insane? I mean, you know my heart never stops bleeding. Don’t let me mince words- the individual in this gang, this mob, who just attacked strangers with weapons and terror, these are the worst that our country has to offer. Our country has always protected them. Our whole system has and does.


But, what can I do today, right now? How do I person, knowing how people get when they’re broken inside?


Grace, damnit. Grace.


I want to be more like Atticus. He’s endlessly merciful, fair, brave but careful, and tender. He’s respectful and loving to people who others say don’t deserve it (African Americans, folks without money, children), and to people who make it clear they really don’t deserve it (angry mob members, spiteful, mean old ladies). Because he always keeps their humanity in mind, and because it’s the right thing to do. He has character. He’s trustworthy, respectful, and consistent, to everyone, at all times.


So. In addition to helping the victims of the attack last weekend, and fighting for social and political justice, on an individual, day-to-day level, here’s what I’m trying to do:


I’m not mocking. Anyone. About how they interpret the world, how they vote, how they spend their thoughts and money. Even if I think they are being stupid or cruel, I will talk to them reasonably and lovingly. I won’t attack back.


Political discussion has devolved into snark where we try to out yell each other and roll our eyes, give flippant, indignant, condescending responses.


I’m not making anyone the butt of a joke or offering criticism without care. And I’m not name-calling.


Because it makes it worse. And because it’s not kind.


People don’t listen when we’re calling them names or making fun of them. It makes them feel more insecure and fearful, and that translates into anger.


Instead of hollering at each other  about what noun they are, what if we explain what verb they’re doing that’s hurting people? Remind them of the humanity of the object of their hateful words/actions, and maybe it’ll call up their own.


Name-calling: You call someone a “Nazi” or a “libtard,” they’re not going to listen to anything else you have to say. Even if you think it is accurate assessment and you are just calling a spade a spade, if you call someone a name, they’re gonna get angry. That includes the noun, “a racist.” Use that on someone and they’re gonna get mad and say, “No, I’m not, and you’re a—” and then no one’s listening. Even if someone clearly lives under that definition, they know to be a “racist” is a bad thing and if you call them that word, you’re saying they’re bad. Then there’s no way to connect and to work on opening their heart/mind. They feel cold judgement and accusation, instead of attempt at understanding.


This sucks. Sucks. Sucks. Grace, damnit. Grace. Endless mercy, don’t bully back. Even if we’re SOOOO RIGHT and they’re SOOO WRONG. It’s not helping to tell them that.


“Say ‘hey’ to Walter for me.” Find the humanity.


That’s all I got. What do you think?  I get why people want to riot in response to this weekend’s crimes. I get why everyone (me, too) is terrified of domestic and world wars right now, and losing any ground on equality.


This is a shit show. But, it kind of always has been. Now what?


(Later, I’m writing a How-to-Parent guide based on Atticus’ teachings. I like his ways.)


  1. Stephanie

    I can definitely see the lines you’re drawing here. In my mind it’s a biblical idea as well–Hate the sin not the the sinner, recognize who our real enemy is. We are called to stand firm, not attack. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,”
    ‭‭We must be a picture in contrast through our use of GRACE, like you say here. And to stand firm in the gap like Atticus and speak out against injustice.

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