Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thoughts on To Kill A Mockingbird

This year is the 50th Anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird. There was an entire program devoted to it at the State Bar Convention this summer and my daughter was assigned the book for her summer reading project. I decided to give the book another look. I was struck by the following passage. To me, it captures the ideal of what it means to be a lawyer and man of honor.

“Do you defend *******, Atticus?” I asked him that evening.

“Of course I do. Don’t say ******, Scout. That’s common.”

“’s what everybody at school says.”

“From now on it’ll be everybody less one—“

“Well if you don’t want me to grow up talkin’ that way, why do you send me to school?”

My father looked at me mildly, amusement in his eyes. Despite our compromise, my campaign to avoid school had continued in one form or another since my first day’s dose of it. . . .

But I was worrying another bone. “Do all lawyers defend n-Negroes, Atticus?”

“Of course they do, Scout.”

“Then why did Cecil say you defended ******? He made it sound like you were runnin’ a still.”

Atticus sighed. “I’m simply defending a Negro—his name’s Tom Robinson. He lives in that little settlement beyond the town dump. He’s a member of Calpurnia’s church, and Cal knows his family well. She say’s they’re clean-living folks. Scout, you aren’t old enough to understand some things yet, but there’s been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending this man. It’s a peculiar case—it won’t come to trial until summer session. John Taylor was kind enough to give us a postponement. .. .”

“If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, they why are you don’ it?”

“For a number of reasons,” said Atticus. “The main one is, if I didn’t, I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.”

“You mean if you didn’t defend that man, Jem and me wouldn’t have to mind you any more?”

“That’s about right.”


“Because I could never ask you to mind me again. Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will; you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change …. it’s a good one, even if it does resist learning.”

“Atticus, are we going to win it?”
“No, honey.”

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, pp. 99-101.

There is so much in this passage. I agree that every lawyer gets one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. For me, it was the case of a little girl who was in foster care and whose grandmother and uncle would not give up on her. I also like the idea that a person’s right to respect depends upon doing the right thing, even when it’s hard. Finally, I like the idea of fighting with your head.

Few of us, myself included, live up to the ideal of Atticus Finch. However, if you have an ideal, at least you can try to aim in that general direction. Sometimes you might get close.

This is a book worth reading and re-reading.

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