Having just finished Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, I've been re-thinking Atticus Finch as well, along with Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show.
Blackmon makes a compelling case that the label "Jim Crow" trivializes the terror and oppression of the period from the end of the Civil War to WWII. He proposes "the Age of Neo-Slavery" as an alternative that adequately describes the system of forced labor and political disenfranchisement that blocked the promise of freedom to African Americans.
It's a great book, horrifying at times in its detail, and it makes clear how different Atticus and Andy are from the more familiar images of the Southern lawyer and sheriff at the time. Blackmon narrates the stories of Southern lawyers who defended their clients against charges of holding black workers in involuntary servitude by arguing, cynically (but ultimately successfully), that no federal laws actually forbade the holding of slaves. Blackmon explains the legal system of the South that set up sheriffs with nearly absolute power over their tiny jurisdictions, allowing them to reap profit by arresting blacks on flimsy or fabricated charges and then leasing them out to mining companies, turpentine manufacturers, farmers, and others.
In this disturbing historical context, Atticus and Andy look like liberal fantasies—the lawyer who does his best to help a black defendant, or the wise, understanding sheriff who gently keeps the peace in his small town (which, as far as I can recall, had no black people in it). At the time, perhaps, these characters were conceived in contrast to their less attractive counterparts in the real world. As dominant images in Americans' collective memories, however, they run the risk of obscuring reality.
Gladwell's piece offers a nice alternate interpretation—and Blackmon's book digs up the bones of the past, forcing us to account for how the violence of our history relates to the present time.
Blackmon writes, near the end of the book:
When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our "fault." But it is undeniably our inheritance.