Reading the ongoing discussion about the epiphany of the racist Atticus Finch, I couldn’t help but think of Alexander Stephens, the pro-Federal School Whig who served as vice president of the Confederate States, but who remained a closet unionist throughout the war.
Stephens represents the great Southern dichotomy. He was an unusually benign slaveholder, allowing his slaves the freedom to roam Crawfordville freely, earning his slaves the nickname “Stephens’ free n*ggers.”
In a sense, Stephens was a kind of proto-Atticus – a slaveowner who had risen a distance above the deeply ingrained racism of his era – racism so deeply embedded that it could not even be objectified. Yet, he was the Confederate political leader who framed what was to become the most searing indictment of the Confederate legacy, the so-called Cornerstone Speech, in which he described the new government as being based on the “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
Needless to say, the attitudes Southern whites have maintained for their fellow black southerners have always been extremely nuanced, much as Atticus Finch’s views are portrayed in Go Set a Watchman.