The Bible tells us that the sinner Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus. In a sudden flash of light from heaven, he experienced a divine, life-changing epiphany. For most of us the getting of wisdom follows an infinitely more gradual and circuitous path.
Amasa Coleman Lee was a humble country boy, born into a dirt-poor farming family in the heart of Dixieland, Alabama, in 1880, just 15 years after the end of the American Civil War. In those days, formal education in the rural South was hard to come by, and young Amasa spent less than a year in school, all up. But he was determined to succeed, and by age 16 he had educated himself, passing his exams in basic bookkeeping, before making his way to Finchburg Alabama, where he found work as a bookkeeper at the Flat Creek sawmill. There he met and married Frances Finch, daughter of the local postmaster, and together they had three daughters and a son.
However, the education of Amasa Coleman Lee didn’t end in the dusty back office of the Flat Creek sawmill. In 1912 he and his young family moved to Monroeville, Alabama, where he got a job as the financial manager of a law firm, representing the firm’s interests in the Manistee & Repton Railway, in the nearby logging town of Manistee. Meanwhile his quest for learning continued, and in 1915 he passed the Alabama bar exam and began practising as a lawyer, then later was appointed a state legislator and publisher of Monroeville’s sole newspaper, the Monroe Journal. Revered as a civic leader in the little town of Monroeville, a church deacon and a director of the local bank, Lee’s children would later remember him as “one of the best-educated men you ever knew,” an indulgent father who would sit his youngest daughter on his lap for hours, reading her the daily newspaper.
That may be where young Nelle Harper Lee acquired her love of writing.
In the Deep South of the early 20th century Amasa Coleman Lee was known as a good, decent and compassionate man. That’s probably why in 1919 he was appointed to defend two black men charged with the murder of a white storekeeper, an unpopular and difficult assignment for the times. Both his clients, a father and a son, were eventually convicted by an all-white jury, and promptly hanged. The lawyer later had at least one acrimonious confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan over what were then considered by many in the South to be his all-too-liberal racial views.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that when Amasa Coleman Lee’s youngest daughter, Harper Lee, came to write what would become one of the most inspirational and enduring novels of the 20th century, the Pulizer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, she used her father as the model for the character of Atticus Finch, the cerebral Southern lawyer who faces down a lynch mob to defend a black man wrongly charged with raping a white woman. First published in July 1960, the book became a classic of modern American literature, and Atticus Finch became a hero of the burgeoning civil rights movement in America, a model of integrity for lawyers everywhere.
One can imagine, then, the collective consternation in literary and broader circles last year when, 55 years after Atticus became the unofficial patron saint of honorable attorneys everywhere, it was revealed that Amasa Coleman Lee, the man who had inspired his tolerant and racially-inclusive legend, remained a committed segregationist for most of his life. With the 2015 publication of Harper Lee’s sequel Go Set a Watchman came the news that, as late as the 1940s, the author’s father had opposed the integration of black and white students in Alabama schools.
“Mr Lee was a Deep South Southerner,” explained Harper Lee’s biographer Charles J Shields. “Up until middle age, he agreed with the status quo: birds of a feather flock together, white people should be around white people, and black people should be around black people.” Needless to say, in 2015 that came as quite a shock to modern-day Americans. But perhaps it shouldn’t have. A lot of “decent folk” were segregationist back in the 1940s. But change was going to come, and Amasa’s education would continue. By the time of his death in 1962, he had moved on from the discriminatory views of his upbringing, embracing racial integration and championing civil rights. Not long before he died, a Birmingham Post Herald reporter was interviewing Harper Lee at her Monroeville home when her then 81-year-old father dropped by, interrupting their interview to talk about the importance of redrawing voting districts to provide fairer representation for black voters. “It’s got to be done,” he urged.
Just as Amasa’s search for wisdom didn’t grind to a halt in the back room of the Flat Creek sawmill back in Finchburg Alabama, clearly it didn’t stand still either in the years that followed.
Amasa Coleman Lee was not a perfect man – few are. But he was good enough to spawn in the imagination of his baby daughter the tower of moral strength and virtue that was Atticus, the humble small-town lawyer who became a catalyst and inspiration for extraordinary, lasting change, a shining exemplar for lawyers everywhere. It was good enough.
This article was published in the Spring 2016 edition of Ocean Road Magazine.
Chris Nyst, Gold Coast Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker