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Debra Kahn

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Marching With Atticus Finch

Three generations in Harper Lee’s image

by Debra Kahn

“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.”

Marching With Atticus Finch | Three generations in Harper Lee’s image

It’s 1962 and I’m 8 years old. My father just left to drive from St. Louis to Alabama to spend six weeks volunteering in the Black community of Montgomery, tutoring students and registering voters. While he’s there, I’ll send him postcards that he’ll save his entire life. A year later he will travel to Washington D.C. to participate in Dr. King’s March.

When he first gives me To Kill a Mockingbird, I feel as though the book has always been a part of me. Wild, unruly Scout is a girl I wish I knew. Wish I was. I am jealous of her independence. She and Jem and Dill live a life that is intoxicating in its freedom from the adult world. The slow, languid southern life — with its dusty streets, tire swings, and even its rabid dogs — is one of those places I want to step into. I can imagine every wraparound porch, every path through the loblolly pines, and the earthy smell of simmering collard greens.

But I’m not with them in Alabama, I’m in Missouri. Our street in St. Louis is your typical 1950s neighborhood, with many large families. A two-block radius is home to at least 50 children. Together, we create our own fantasies and stories. There are weddings that take place in basements with gowns snuck out of older sisters’ closets. Forts built in garages from old wood and collected junk. Our summer nights are spent playing flashlight hide-and-seek until at long last we are called home by our mothers. We have our own secret society and perhaps that is what has drawn me to this story of children in small town Alabama.

During grade school, our group decides that three elderly brothers who live together on our street are highly suspicious. They look alike, with gray hair and long beards, and each stands barely five feet tall. Their house is overgrown with ivy and prickly bushes, and is always dark. Such nefarious creatures. The one we see the most we name Crookie because of his stooped posture.

One Halloween out trick-or-treating, my friends dare me to knock on their door. As I creep up the path I understand the terror Jem felt when he took the dare and approached Boo Radley’s house. I knock. The door opens immediately, and Crookie lurches forward with a huge bag of candy and wordlessly holds it out to me. I think he can tell I’m afraid, and he gives me a warm little smile and nods at the bag of candy. I am dumbfounded, and quickly grab a few candies and run. As I look back, I can see his two brothers standing behind him. Have they waited for years for a Halloween knock? It strikes me how wrong we are about them. Later, when I re-read Atticus Finch’s words, “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,” I finally understand their truth. Atticus’s wisdom seeps deep inside me, settling around my heart to surface again and again over the years.

Atticus, the champion of the book, and Gregory Peck, who plays Atticus in the movie, are my first heroes. There are so many scenes burned in my memory. Atticus reading to Scout, Atticus sitting outside Tom’s jail cell to protect him, and of course, Atticus’s summation at the trial. My first great disappointment, the kind that shakes you to your core, is when Atticus loses the case. I can’t fathom it. It seems so wrong.

There are many reasons why I will grow up to be a political person, a defender of the disenfranchised. But To Kill a Mockingbird and my dad’s activism are crucial to defining who I am.

Many years later, when my son Asa turns 12, I give him To Kill a Mockingbird, explaining that it is my favorite book of all time. I can’t wait for him to read it.

A few days after I give it to him, I hear Asa call out to me. “Mom, I just finished Atticus’s summation in court. It was great! He is going to win the case!”

What have I done? I think. I feel anxiety, dread, guilt. I call back to him, “Hey, let me know when you finish that section…”

When is a child old enough to read a book that slams injustice in their face? I wait for him to finish, heart pounding. I know he’s a fast reader, so I keep waiting to hear from him. Finally, I creep into his room. The book is closed in his lap, and there are silent tears running down his face. I freeze, and then go to him. What can a mother say to make everything better?

He keeps asking “Why? Why?” It leads us into a discussion about how we need Atticuses in the world; we need their courage and willingness to fight against terrible odds. We talk for a long time. I’ve willingly led him to a place that dashed his belief in truth and justice, and now I want to take away all his pain. But that book, a book that’s been a part of my fabric for 50 years, it’s teaching him more about right and wrong than anything I could have ever told him. It’s what taught me.

He beams when I tell him how we almost named him Atticus.

2017’s Inauguration Weekend arrives and I’m in Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March, surrounded by a mass of people of every race, religion, and gender. This is just the latest battle. My resolve has been hardened by years of standing up to injustice, following in the footsteps of my father, and of Atticus. Atticus would have reveled as each speaker from Gloria Steinem to Angela Davis to Michael Moore entreats the crowd of 750,000 to walk in one another’s shoes.

When Steinem yells, “Who will sign up for the registry if they make Muslims register?” the entire crowd — blondes and browns and every nationality — yells in unison:


We all yell. From here in D.C. all the way to Oakland, California, where my son Asa and daughter Jane march in solidarity, keeping our legacy of upholding justice alive. And maybe even another marcher — looking down on the National Mall where he rallied with Dr. King 54 years ago — adding his voice to the chorus.

We are all Atticus.