To Kill a Mockingbird, Revisited

The plot of Harper Lee’s book about racism, childhood, and paternal love revolves around the rape trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, defended by a white lawyer, played in the movie version with transcendent nobleness by Gregory Peck. In both the novel and the movie, the evidence strongly suggests that Robinson is innocent and that the victim, a poor white girl with a violent drunk of a father, made up the rape story to hide her shame at having kissed a Negro.

Through the eyes of the six-year-old narrator, Scout, we watch Atticus Finch systematically dismantle the prosecution’s flimsy case; anyone who believes in justice knows that the defendant must be acquitted.

This being the 1930s South, of course, a black man cannot find justice from a jury of 12 white men, and Robinson is found guilty. Later, the real culprit, the bad father, is slain in a revenge killing that the local sheriff rules an accident. Something like equilibrium is restored to the sleepy town, and Scout grows up to be a wiser and world-wearier lady.

The lesson of this story seems to be that innocence must always be defiled by the taint of knowledge, the realization that Man — especially when he’s a Southern cracker — is evil. And even when beautiful people like Atticus try their damndest to do the right thing, the entrenched traditions of badness produce senseless misery, akin to shooting a mockingbird.

What if, however, Tom Robinson, had committed the crime for which he’s accused? Would not Atticus Finch be just as noble for having the courage to vigorously defend a black man, giving him the safeguards of due process? Would Scout — and we the readers — see him as somehow less admirable? The job of a criminal lawyer, after all, is not to judge his client but to offer him the most effective defense the law allows. Indeed, one could argue that Atticus Finch would be an even more heroic character if, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he passionately argued his client’s innocence to a racist jury inclined to convict a Negro no matter the circumstances. Of course, finding a suitably sympathetic actor to earn our sympathies in the movie version would be near impossible. Even Greg Peck couldn’t do it.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” moves us precisely because of one man’s willingness to stand up to institutional injustice. Were it a story about one man’s willingness to honor the principles of the law, no matter how gruesome the client he is forced to defend, we might not consider it a classic American story. We might not like it very much at all.

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