In Defense of To Kill a Mockingbird

Posted on Categories Popular Culture & Law

One of my favorite legal movies is To Kill a Mockingbird.  The movie is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee.  I disagree with my esteemed colleague Professor Daniel Blinka’s recent blog that he’d “rather leave the planet than read or watch To Kill a Mockingbird – Finch loses the big case and gets his client killed; nice job!”  I just watched the movie again for about the 50th time!  The movie was clearly a fiction, but it symbolized for me a cultural acknowledgement of an ugly chapter in our history where racism interfered with an equitable disbursement of justice.  The movie depicted the era of southern lynchings, Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement.  Justice, particularly in the south, was not meted out in a colorblind manner.

The movie starred Gregory Peck as attorney Atticus Finch who represented an African American man, Tom Robinson, who was wrongfully accused of raping a White woman in a southern Mississippi town.  The evidence clearly established that Robinson had not committed any crime against the alleged victim.  Rather, the facts indicated that the alleged victim’s father had physically assaulted her after witnessing her kissing Robinson.  Notwithstanding the evidence, the all-White jury convicted Robinson.  Hence, Professor Blinka was correct that Finch lost the case.  However, the movie would have less emblematic of the times if the jury had acquitted Robinson.  Five very high-profile real life murders during this era reflected the impossibility of Finch’s task.  An all-White jury exonerated the suspects of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in about one hour even though the evidence established their likely involvement in the murder.  Medgar Evers, a civil rights pioneer, was killed in Mississippi during 1963.  The evidence pointed to the guilt of the primary suspect; however, two all-White juries deadlocked on his guilt.  The suspect was finally convicted during 1994.  The civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered in 1964.  No one was charged with these murders until 2005 even though suspects had been implicated shortly after the deaths. 

I was born and raised in an integrated community in upstate New York after these killings.  The movie To Kill a Mockingbird was my first exposure to the tumultuous civil rights period.  I watched the movie for the first time as a child with my parents. The movie had an immediate impact on me.  I experienced a range of emotions – anger, shock, confusion and sadness. The sadness, anger and shock resulted from the conviction and subsequent death of Robinson.  The confusion resulted from the death of the movie’s villain, the alleged victim’s father, at the hands of a meek neighbor, and the sheriff’s decision to cover up the murder.  Irrespective of the flaws in the court system, the sheriff was obligated to arrest the neighbor.  However, I was also inspired after watching the movie.  Finch made a great personal sacrifice to represent Robinson, including placing his children in harm’s way.  This fictitious character inspired me to become an attorney, to help the disadvantaged and to be willing to make personal sacrifices for a cause.  Consequently, while To Kill a Mockingbird was clearly a fictional tale, I will, indeed, watch it for the 51st time when I crave inspiration! 

7 thoughts on “In Defense of To Kill a Mockingbird”

  1. While I can’t match Prof. Lindsey’s eloquence in writing about To Kill A Mockingbird, I agree with her that the movie is both inspirational and a poignant comment on race relations in the 1930’s, the decade in which the movie is set.

    Atticus Finch’s great triumph is that he convinces everyone in the court room, white and black, that Tom Robinson is innocent and that the Ewell girl, the poor white victim, has been pressured to perjure herself by her viciously racist father. When the trial ends, everyone realizes this.

    The all-white, all male jury still convicts Tom on principle, i.e., the principle that the testimony of a white female witness must be accepted over that of a black man, even if it is false. But Finch has exposed the moral bankruptcy of white southern society in which he lives.

    What I find particularly interesting is the challenge that the movie poses to the idea that a lawyer should represent his client zealously, irrespective of the merits of the cause. Atticus Finch shows no particular interest in the Robinson case until he is appointed counsel by the local circuit court judge, and he seems ready to put on a pro forma defense until he realizes that Tom Robinson is actually innocent.

    It is only once that he is convinced of his client innocence that he draws upon his considerable courtroom skills to establish the baseless nature of the charges against him.

    What would the point of the movie have been if Tom Robinson had actually raped the Ewell girl and Atticus had used his lawyer skills to cause the poor victim to break down on the stand and appear to incriminate someone else? What if Robinson was only faking the bad arm? Even worse, what if Atticus had counselled him to pretend to have a disability. That certainly would not be the Atticus Finch we have come to know and love.

    This, it seems to me, is a standard feature of heroic television and movie lawyers: their real commitment is to seeing that justice is done, so they are only interested in defending innocent clients.

    There is a wonderful Perry Mason episode where Perry tells one of his distraught female clients accused of murdering her husband that unlike everyone else he believes that she is innocent. Moreover, he makes it clear that he only agreed to represent her because he believed that she was innocent. Were she actually guilty, she would have to find a different lawyer. Lawyers like Mason and Finch judge their own clients first, and if they represent them only if they are morally worthy.

    This is how the non-lawyer public wants lawyers to be. Popular audiences dislike ambiguity, and they have little use for the claim that guilty parties deserve a zealous defense. So too, it seems, did Atticus Finch and Perry Mason (and Ben Matlock and the Defenders and Petrocelli and every other tv or movie lawyer hero worth his or her salt).

    Atticus Finch was a brave and moral man willing to risk his reputation and his safety to see that justice was done. He just didn’t have much use for traditional legal ethics.

  2. I enjoyed reading this blog post, Prof. Lindsey and am moved to share my affinity for this book. The first time I read TKM was a decade ago as a high school student. It’s one of the few mandatory reading books that left a lasting impression on me. This summer, after my 1L year, I decided to revisit the story. I found that as a law student, this book was even more meaningful. This time around the book was darker than I had remembered. The sense of foreboding shadow and evil, heavier. Yet, Atticus Finch’s quietly perseverant character seemed stronger than I had remembered. Guided by Scout’s plain narration, the reader questions why Atticus works to defend a lost cause, or, for that matter why the teachers at Scout’s school bother to teach the kids who only show up for the first day of class, or why an elderly woman (Mrs. Dubose) would end her addiction to pain killers and face a painful, but lucid, death.
    No doubt this book has important social messages. But as I reread this book through the eyes of a maturing lawyer, I was reminded of the privilege and purpose of this profession. We won’t always get to pick the best cases or clients. But we should be guided by a just ethic regardless of whether defeat is a foregone conclusion.
    Atticus states this much more eloquently: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

  3. I think one of the inspiring parts is when Scout, sitting in the segregated balcony, needs to be educated by those who have been confined there. “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” What parent would not want that to be said to his or her children?

    You could see this, I suppose, as a reification of the white savior but I think that would be uncharitable. I prefer to see it as a glimpse of what lawyers, at their best, can be.

    I agree with Kali that, at that time and in that place, lawyers labored under impossible conditions and just continuing the battle with faith in an eventual victory (which, who knows, could turn out to be yours) is also a good lesson for lawyers. I think her point dovetails nicely with Mike Morse’s reference to “Crossing Hitler,” a book that I am now reading. That resistance was immediately futile does not mean that it was not righteous and, ultimately, efficacious.

    As for the movie, I was also – when I first saw it as a boy living in a community that was not integrated and at a time when the battles over civil rights were fresh in both history and my childhood experience – deeply moved by it. One of the things that I remember (and I have not seen the movie for at least 10 years) was Robinson’s dignity in the face of the accusations against him and his accuser’s discomfiture at the position that she found herself in. He was, of course, the victim but, in a way, she was as well and the film was big enough to get that across.

    Of course another issue is whether one ought to recognize that submission to injustice is in the client’s best interest. Challenging the Jim Crow South or Nazi Germany was not a fair fight and the client – rather than the lawyer – would bear the brunt of defeat. To Kill A Mockingbird is not set up to address that question. But that does not diminish its greatness.

  4. For additional reading on the town where To Kill a Mockingbird is set, you should check out National Geographic Magazine’s article entitled “36460: To Catch a Mockingbird.” The article is available online.

  5. I will not add to the excellent comments already made but to say that To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the great movies of all time. And it reminds us that standing up for what’s right is important, even if you lose the case.

  6. It has been so long since I have read TKM or watched the movie but this blog has made me want to visit the story again.

    I will make sure that I take some time out of my summer schedule to re-read the book! Thank you, Professor Lindsey.

  7. The British film magazine EMPIRE had a very astute appreciation of the film in its September 2009 issue. I like this part especially:

    “Prosecutor and judge, in fact, wear light grey; both a nod to Southern summer fashion and perhaps a subtle assertion that they are merely ambiguous cogs in a bad system, not bad men. In this the filmmakers, like the author, refuse to condemn people: only attitudes. Judge Taylor . . . in particular, projects an air of weary resignation, and comes close to slamming the door as he retreats into chambers after the verdict is read out. The closest the film has to a villain is the chief witness for the prosecution, . . . but even he, it is clear, is poor white trash in a difficult situation. Everyone is empathised with here, everyone treated with compassion.”

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