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anti-semitism

My Son Asked If Martin Luther King Wanted Us To Judge People

martin luther king jr

NY Public Library Digital Collections

Even though Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is my favorite book ever, I didn’t read her many-years deferred sequel, “Go Set a Watchman,” when it first became available last summer. Partially because I wanted to distance myself from the hype. Mostly because I was the 947th customer on the public library’s wait-list.

I finally got my hands on the title just in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I read it. I liked it. Would I have liked it as much if it didn’t continue the tale of my favorite book ever? Probably not. But I liked it.

And then I read the reviews. (I never read reviews ahead of time; I like to come in with no preconceived notions.) Most people didn’t like it. A lot.

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The main objection seemed to be the difference in the way Atticus Finch is portrayed from one book to the next. For many people, Atticus is the ideal father figure in “Mockingbird.” But that was never the appeal for me. I had a strong enough father figure in my life. I didn’t need fictional substitutes. I was all about Scout, the tomboy who was so bored by the slow pace of school that she snuck paper and pencil under her desk and wrote her own stories. (Not that I would ever do that…)

After reading “Go Set a Watchman,” I didn’t see the inconsistency in Atticus. The idea that he could defend a Black man falsely accused of rape in one book, then be against school integration and the NAACP in the next, tracked fine for me.

Just out of curiosity, and, again, with no preconceived notions, I gave the book to my African-American husband to read. He felt the same way. He is very familiar with those who are eager to charge in on their white horses to protect the downtrodden. As long as they’re the right kind of downtrodden. There was the girl in high school who wanted to help my husband with his math homework—until she found out his average was higher than hers. There was the voter registration worker on the street who helpfully explained that my husband checked the wrong box when he marked “Independent.” And there was the US government itself, which returned his registration by mail a few weeks later with a note suggesting that they thought he’d mis-registered.

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I’ve seen it in the Jewish community, too, ranging from Orthodox sects like Chabad, who worked tirelessly to bring Soviet Jews to America and were subsequently unpleasantly surprised to learn the majority had no intention of giving up their pork-eating, non-Shabbat observing ways, to their opposite, Upper West Side liberals, who were equally surprised to find that those who’d actually lived under socialism were eager to get as far away as possible from anything that smacked of it.

How could they? How dare they? After everything we’ve done for them!

That’s pretty much where I see Atticus. He defended Tom because Atticus believed in the law. (I always wondered why nobody gave a damn about poor Mayella Ewell. A 15-year-old girl pretty much all but said she was being raped by her sadistic father—in “Go Set a Watchmen,” it actually is blatantly stated—and nobody gave a damn.) But thinking that a man, regardless of the color of his skin, deserves a fair trial, doesn’t necessarily mean you want him going to school with your children, marrying your daughter, or voting in your county. At least not until you’ve explained to him the right way to vote. And to think.

Next, I gave the book to my 16-year-old son. Like my husband and me, his favorite scene was the one where a now grown Scout goes to visit her former nanny, Calpurnia. In the course of the conversation, Scout realizes that the woman who raised her and loved her Scout’s entire life now sees Scout as just another problem… just another white person. My son knows the above is one of my biggest fears when it comes to my own children.

Which brings us to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In the process of discussing the book, the upcoming holiday, and readers’ reaction to Atticus, my son observed, “Martin Luther King said he wants his children to live in a country where they are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Does that mean that he actually wanted us to judge people?”

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An excellent question. And very Talmudic, in that it hinges on your definition and the subsequent implication of one word.

As we now live in a world where any criticism leads to instant cries of fat/slut/etc. shaming, and the assumption that even something you said as a joke 20 years ago is cause for being shunned from society until a tearful public apology has been issued, does the entire concept of judging no longer mean what Martin Luther King, Jr. intended it to mean? (Another very Talmudic question.)

Is judgment a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, isn’t judging other’s actions wrong and refusing to stand for it how revolutions and civil rights movements make progress?

On the other hand, are all revolutions and civil rights movements necessarily good? (Ask my father-in-law about how Brown v. Board of Education made colored schools worse.) Is questioning their necessity, motives, or methods automatically some form of “-ism?”

Should we judge people blindly, or should we try and figure out why they feel the way they do? (As my husband said about Atticus and Co., “These are good people being told they’re bad. Of course, they’re going to push back!”) Should we consider that one action—or tweet—doesn’t define a person’s entire life? That, maybe, shaming the shamers is equally reactionary? That real-life folks—and fictional ones, too—can be made up of contradictions? That people can do good things for bad reasons, and vice-versa? (Richard Nixon was an anti-Semite in private… who sent badly needed arms to Israel during the 1973 war.) Do intentions matter, or only results? Are bad results forgivable when they stem from good intentions (see Brown v. Board of Education, above)?

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I have no idea how to answer any of the above questions. But I’m really glad a book like “Go Set a Watchman” prompted my entire family to discuss them.

Consider it your MLK challenge for the weekend. And let me know what your family comes up with.

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