The complexity of Barack Obama and Atticus Finch

Is it still okay to quote Atticus Finch even though he turned out to be a racist?

Barack Obama says yes. He did it in his farewell address, a thoughtful speech by the first black president, who will hand over the White House in ten days to Donald Trump, who as a candidate excited white nationalists.

When Obama pointed out that ten-day timeline, drawing boos from the audience, he argued it is a "hallmark of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected president to the next."

That's as difficult for some Democrats and Obama supporters to stomach as the news that Finch was not always to be the near-perfect father and role model of the classic novel.

It was after talking about the need to protect anti-discrimination laws that he mentioned Finch, the fallen hero of Harper Lee's classic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," who turned into a crotchety old racist of 2015's "Go Set a Watchman." That book was billed as a sequel, but turned out to be a first draft. It depicts Finch having attended KKK meetings and saying to his daughter, "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?"

Obama did not mention the sequel, but did cite Finch in his speech when he sought to get Americans of all stripes to see the world from each other's perspective.

"If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said "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."

He told blacks to learn the struggles of other minority groups and whites to acknowledge the stain of this country's earlier generations are not gone.

When minority groups "voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised," he said.

But as they swallow the bitter pill of a Trump presidency, long after that promise to bring hope and change that put him in that White House has been abandoned for stony-eyed practicality, Obama seemed to be encouraging the supporters who gathered to hear him say "goodbye," in Chicago to hang on and join the fight.

"Show up, dive in, stay at it," he said, arguing that "Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America -- and in Americans -- will be confirmed."

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama join hands with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. as they lead the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015. Malia and Sasha Obama join hands with their grandmother, Marian Robinson. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House. (Lawrence Jackson)

Barack Obama's farewell speech: President ends his leadership with urgent and fearful warning about the state of American democracy

Barack Obama rose to power as the country's first African American president with message of hope and boundless optimism for the future.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible...who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," he told crowds in Chicago in 2008 after winning the election.

In all the years since he never wavered from his mission to help foster in America what he once called the "renewal of morality".
Unlike Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and so many others before him, this is a president unblemished by scandal.

The president acted presidential even behind closed doors: even his closest aides fail to recall moments when Mr Obama gave way to roiling anger. Emotions have rarely muddled the academic rigor of his mind.

White House staffers have nicknamed him the 'Colombo president', after the famous television detective who always catches the killer with his questions.

So inquisitive is Mr Obama, one senior aide said, that he has changed the traditional length of memos written for a sitting president. "A science brief was placed on his desk. It had been kept to two pages as is usual," the aide said. "It came back the next day with three words written by the president in the top right hand corner: 'where's the rest?'"

It is because of this that his speech on Tuesday night was all the more remarkable: after eight years of preaching change and hope, Mr Obama ended his leadership with an urgent and fearful warning about the state of American democracy.

It was a thinly veiled slight to the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump's election campaign, which included attacks on Muslims, the disabled, women and immigrants.

"If we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come," Mr Obama said.

Mr Obama has been criticised by African American communities for failing to address race issues in the country during his time in office.

But in these final moments, he warned of racism as a poison to democracy. He called on African Americans and other minorities to tie their " own struggles for justice" to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – including the middle-aged white man who "may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change".

And he called on white Americans to acknowledge that "the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s".

Mr Obama made only passing reference to the next president. When he noted he would soon be replaced by the Republican, his crowd began to boo.

"No, no, no, no, no," Obama said. One of the nation's great strengths, he said, "is the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next."

Mr Obama may have done all he could to help the peaceful transition of power to the president-elect, but he became emotional as he prepared to pass the baton of the country he loved to a man whom he does not trust.

He became urgent, a tear in his eye, as he talked of needing to "guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are".

Brushing away tears with a handkerchief, Mr Obama paid tribute to the sacrifices made by his wife - and by his daughters, who were young girls when they entered the big white home on Pennsylvania Avenue and leave as young women.

He praised first lady Michelle Obama for taking on her role "with grace and grit and style and good humour" and for making the White House "a place that belongs to everybody."


President Obama mentions Atticus Finch, Selma during farewell speech

President Barack Obama dropped a few Alabama references during his emotional farewell address to the nation Tuesday night.

In what is being seen as his final speech before president-elect Donald Trumps' inauguration Jan. 20, Obama not only highlighted some of the successes of his administration but also charged Americans to continue working together to make life better for every American and for the next generation. He listed the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights as one of his examples. During the 50 year anniversary in 2015, Obama spoke at the same bridge where Alabama state troopers beat the marchers during Bloody Sunday.

"For 240 years, our nation's call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation," Obama said. "It's why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan -- and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well."

He also tried to inspire a spirit of unity despite differences in races, sexuality, lifestyles, religions and opinions. He did so by quoting Atticus Finch, who is one of the main characters in Alabama native Harper Lee's book "To Kill a Mockingbird".

"Hearts must change," Obama said. "If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said '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.'"

The will to inspire and produce change will not stop with his presidency, but will continue during his remainder of his life as a citizen, Obama said. In fact, he ended his speech with the same slogan he used during his 2008 presidential campaign.

"Yes We Can. Yes We Did. Yes We Can," he said.

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