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Harper Lee’s new novel is a story of lost innocence

Like her classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Harper Lee novel out on July 14 is a coming of age story.

And not just for Scout Finch.

“Go Set a Watchman” is set in the famous fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the mid-1950s, 20 years after “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes place. Scout Finch, now a grown woman known by her given name Jean Louise, is visiting from New York, unsure of whether to marry a local suitor who she has known since childhood and enduring a painful contrast between her new life and the ways of her hometown.

Scout is no longer the tomboy we know from “Mockingbird,” but has transformed from an “overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature into a reasonable facsimile of a human being.” She is “oppressed” by Maycomb, finds it petty and provincial. And she is shaken by the response to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 that declared segregation in schools is “inherently unequal.”

There is nervous talk of blacks holding public office, and marrying whites. One prominent resident warns Scout that the court moved too quickly, that blacks aren’t ready for full equality and the South has every right to object to interference from the NAACP and others.

“Can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?” he says.

That resident, to the profound dismay of his daughter, and likely to millions of “Mockingbird” readers, is Atticus Finch.

“First Woody Allen, then Bill Cosby, now Atticus Finch,” tweeted New Republic senior editor Herr Jeet, responding to early reports about the book. “You can’t trust anyone anymore.”

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, Atticus risks his physical safety to defend a black man accused of rape. He invokes the Declaration of Independence during the trial and argues for the sanctity of the legal system. Privately, he wonders why “reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up.”

“I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town. I hope they trust me enough,” he says, referring to Jean Louise and her older brother.

In “Go Set a Watchman,” a 72-year-old Atticus laments the Supreme Court ruling and invokes the supposed horrors of Reconstruction as he imagines “state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em.”

A tearful Scout tells the man she worshipped growing up: “You’re the only person I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for.”

Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, said she discovered the book last year. It has been called by Amazon.com its most popular pre-order since the last Harry Potter story.  Anticipating fierce resistance to the portrayal of Atticus, publisher HarperCollins issued a statement late Friday.

“The question of Atticus’s racism is one of the most important and critical elements in this novel, and it should be considered in the context of the book’s broader moral themes,” the statement reads.

“’Go Set a Watchman’ explores racism and changing attitudes in the South during the 1950s in a bold and unflinching way.”

Lee is 89, living in an assisted facility in her native Monroeville, Alabama, and has not spoken to the media in decades. In a statement issued in February, when her publisher stunned the world by announcing a second Lee novel was coming, she noted that “Watchman” was the original story.

“My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel (what became ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) from the point of view of the young Scout,” she said.

HarperCollins has said “Watchman” is unaltered from Lee’s initial draft.

The current book will certainly raise questions, only some of which only Lee can answer. Why did she approve the book’s release after seemingly accepting, even welcoming, the fact that “Mockingbird” would be her only novel?  How well does she remember its contents? Did her editor resist because of its political content? How autobiographical is “Watchman,” which roughly follows the path of Lee’s life in the 1950s? Does she consider the Atticus of “Watchman” more “real” than the courageous attorney of “Mockingbird”?

And how surprised should any of us be?

Atticus is hardly the only old man to fear change, or seemingly enlightened white to reveal common prejudices. Around the time Lee was working on “Watchman,” an essay by Nobel laureate William Faulkner was published in Life magazine. Faulkner had long been considered a moderate on race, praised for novels that challenged the South to confront its past. But in “A Letter to the North,” he sounds like Atticus as he considers the impact of the Supreme Court ruling.

“I have been on record as opposing the forces in my native country which would keep the condition out of which this present evil and trouble has grown. Now I must go on record as opposing the forces outside the South which would use legal or police compulsion to eradicate that evil overnight,” he wrote.

“I was against compulsory segregation. I am just as strongly against compulsory integration. … So I would say to the NAACP and all the organizations who would compel immediate and unconditional integration ‘Go slow now. Stop now for a time, a moment.’”

50 years ago, ‘Freedom Summer’ changed South, US

HOLLY SPRINGS, Mississippi — As a teenager growing up in a segregated society, Roy DeBerry wasn’t waiting for white folks to come down to Mississippi and “save” him. But in the summer of 1964, the factory worker’s son was very glad to see people like Aviva Futorian.

The young history teacher from the affluent Chicago suburbs was among hundreds of volunteers — mostly Northern white college students — who descended on Mississippi during what came to be known as “Freedom Summer.” They came to register blacks to vote, and to establish “Freedom Schools” and community centers to help prepare those long disenfranchised for participation in what they hoped would be a new political order.

Opposition was brutal. Churches were bombed, volunteers were arrested, beaten — even murdered.

“There was real terror in Mississippi,” DeBerry said during a recent visit to his hometown, Holly Springs.

Fifty years later, Freedom Summer stands out as a watershed moment in the long drive for civil rights. Mass resistance to integration started to crumble. Congress took a monumental step toward equal rights. And scores of young, idealistic volunteers embarked on careers of activism that continue to shape American politics and policy today.

And in this vortex of history, lifelong friendships formed between people from vastly different worlds, like a black 16-year-old from Mississippi and a 26-year-old daughter of a Jewish furniture mogul.

Sitting side by side recently in Futorian’s condominium in Chicago, the two friends reminisced about taboos that prevented a white woman and black man from sitting next to each other in a car.

“I probably didn’t have as much trepidation as I should have,” said Futorian, now a 76-year-old attorney. “Because it’s hard to imagine your own death.”

Years of demonstrations by determined local blacks, boycotts, legislative campaigns and bloody pitched battles had not dislodged segregation. On March 20, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had been fighting for integration, announced the “Mississippi Summer Project.” The group concluded it needed a dramatic tactic to draw national attention to the injustices — and putting Northern whites in harm’s way seemed sure to accomplish that.

Volunteers converged for training at a college in Ohio. On June 21, even before orientation ended, chilling word spread: Three young volunteers — New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and Mississippi native James Chaney — had vanished while investigating the burning of a black church.

DeBerry had “an independent streak.” He sensed the injustice of having to climb to the gallery at the segregated Holly Theatre. He resented having to call the white kid behind the counter at Tyson’s Drug Store “sir.”

“No one needed to teach you that,” the 66-year-old DeBerry said. “It was just something that was in your DNA.”

So when a Freedom School opened, DeBerry found his way there.

When Futorian met with a group of black teenage boys, she asked them who were the richest blacks in town, how they earned their living, were they involved in the civil rights movement and if not, why not?

“Roy was the only one who knew the answers,” she recalls.

DeBerry says this was his first interaction with a white person “on a social level.”

Through donated books, Futorian introduced him to James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and other “subversive” black authors. They shared sandwiches at Modena’s Cafe in the “colored” section of town.  They worked on voter registration.

They were well aware of the risks they were taking even before Aug. 4, when searchers dug the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers from an earthen dam.

By fall, most of the Northern volunteers had returned home. Aviva Futorian remained. She worked as a field organizer for SNCC and held a college preparatory study group for a few particularly promising students, including DeBerry.

She returned to Chicago after a year and a half, and decided to pursue justice as a lawyer.

With her help, DeBerry was accepted at her alma mater, Brandeis University. He helped found a black student association there.

That summer brought the beginnings of change in Mississippi and beyond. Systematic resistance to integration began fading in the state. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which became law July 2.

The Freedom Summer effort helped create momentum for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Some believe this activism planted the seeds for history-making events generations later. “If it hadn’t been for the veterans of Freedom Summer, there would be no Barack Obama,” longtime congressman John Lewis, then a coordinator for SNCC, wrote in a memoir.

Rita Bender, Michael Schwerner’s widow, is less optimistic.

She says a refusal by some to recognize past inequities is partly to blame for today’s social ills. Now an attorney in Seattle, she’s dismayed at recent developments — a Supreme Court decision that nullified portions of the Voting Rights Act, voter identification laws. The country, she says, is “moving backward.”

Following a 1995 SNCC reunion in Holly Springs, DeBerry and Futorian began collecting oral histories of those who’d lived under Jim Crow in two Mississippi counties. In 2004, they formally launched the Hill Country Project, which has since grown to include education support and economic development.

Through all the change over the last five decades, there has been one constant for DeBerry and Futorian — their friendship.

Gay man to head NC church council

The North Carolina Council of Churches, a social justice advocacy group that unites denominations and congregations, has become the first organization of its kind in the South to elect an openly gay person as its president.

Stan Kimer, a retired IBM executive who lives in Raleigh, was elected this month to lead the organization. The council lobbies the General Assembly on topics like immigration and the environment and tries to find common ground on social issues among Christian groups that might disagree on key theological issues.

Kimer, a lay leader in the Metropolitan Community Churches, which ministers to gays, says the vote is more a referendum on him as an individual rather than a desire to make a political point.

“Especially in the religious community, people are increasingly able to look beyond someone being GLBT. People are looking more at the merits of a person as an individual, which is something we need more of in this country.”

Although the election is groundbreaking in a Southern state where the religious landscape is dominated by theologically and socially conservative churches, it’s not a particular surprise, said the Rev. George Reed, executive director of the state council of churches.

“From the council of churches’ standpoint, the big deal was almost 20 years ago” when the body voted to include the gay-friendly MCC in its membership, Reed said.

Denominations and congregations applying for membership essentially have to show that they believe in Jesus Christ and that they want to work with other churches, Reed said, and the decision to admit the MCC was a milestone.

“The council then essentially said, we don’t reject you, we don’t reject that you believe in Jesus,” Reed said. “In terms of relevance, that was the important decision.”

The election also doesn’t necessarily reflect a major change in Christian thinking in North Carolina. Most of the council’s members are mainline Protestant groups whose national denominations have been moving in recent years to accept expanded roles for gays and lesbians. The state branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, arguably the most prominent Christian group in North Carolina, is not a member of the council of churches.

Both Roman Catholic dioceses in North Carolina are members of the council, and Reed said Kimer’s election was more about his personal qualities and the role of the council as an organizing body for activism than about theological changes in the member churches.

“Most of our members are still having internal conversations, dialogue and debate about this issue, at varying degrees of intensity,” he said.

Calls to spokesmen for the dioceses of Raleigh and Charlotte were not immediately returned.

Kimer, 55, began moving toward the presidency about six years ago after being elected the council’s third vice president. Presidential terms are for one year, but presidents traditionally are elected to a second term, Reed said.

The new president wants to devote some of his term to getting younger people interested in inter-church activism, a significant goal for mainline churches in particular, where membership in the pews is aging without much of a new generation coming in to replace older churchgoers.

As much as he wants his tenure to be devoted to the issues raised by the council, though, Kimer said he’s aware he’ll be looked at as a representative of gays in general.

“I know there will be a lot of focus on me, and I want to be a good representative of the GLBT community,” he said.