Friday, July 16, 2010

The Courage of Atticus

Of course, Atticus is courageous. He may not rush into burning buildings, protect a neighborhood, or wear a uniform, but he risks everything to stand for a principle: justice.

As a lawyer, Atticus accepts a case that most attorneys would refuse, or if court-appointed to defend Robinson, would put up no real defense, accepting the foregone conclusion that the word of a white man, even a trashy, drunken, abusive white man, trumps the word of a black man, even a respectable, hard-working black man. Atticus appeals to the jurists’ consciences when he proves that Tom Robinson is not guilty and urges them to do their true duty by sending Tom home to his family rather than to prison in order to maintain the social divide. Atticus asks the jurists to oppose segregation and its own brand of incarceration by finding for the truth. And Atticus does all this at considerable risk to himself.

First, Atticus is not only an attorney, he is also an elected State representative. His defense of Tom Robinson could result in not being returned to office in the next election, and many men without his character would have put his own re-election far ahead of any concern for Robinson. Today, pollsters and handlers would have stood between Atticus and Judge Taylor, who asked Atticus to defend Robinson. Those campaign workers would have determined that taking part in a controversial trial would cost Atticus votes so they would have asked or even ordered Atticus not to take the Judge’s calls. But Atticus is a man apart from the ordinary politician of today. He stands for truth and justice, a stance that is often unpopular in the court of public opinion.

Second, Atticus is a parent. He must consider the impact of his actions on Jem and Scout, and he does. He tells Judge Taylor that he will defend Tom Robinson, and later he tells his children that “if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again.” Atticus means that he must stand for truth and justice, especially when the price for doing so may be very high, so that he can be a worthy parent and citizen.

Of course, Atticus did not foresee that Scout would fight with kids in the schoolyard, and he certainly could not have guessed that Mrs. Dubose would taunt Jem into slaughtering her camellias. He probably knew how his sister, Alexandra, would react, and he anticipated “some high talk” around town, but Jem’s permanently disfigured arm was something that a man like Atticus would never imagine. He had no idea that Bob Ewell would attack Scout and Jem after being exposed in a court of law as a liar and racist. Atticus dismissed Bob Ewell as impotent, capable of beating his own daughter or spitting on his enemy and nothing more. Atticus did not realize that he had stripped Bob Ewell naked and left him with nothing except the accident of birth: Ewell was born a white man and that was all he had on his resumé. He was also a coward who struck only those unable to defend themselves.

Third, Atticus is a lawyer who expects the courtroom to be as blind to race as the sculpted, blindfolded Lady Justice; Harper Lee’s Atticus would surely grieve if he were to discover that race is still a factor in courts across the land. He demands more of human beings, especially himself. He argued that an eye witness account should be required if a man’s life is at stake, especially in “he said-she said” cases such as Tom Robinson’s. Judges and juries should set a higher standard for evidence if a man could die as a result of charges being brought against him. Atticus would, no doubt, approve measures implemented to insure that truth and justice win the day, even if more remains to be done. He might be gratified to learn that DNA evidence has become the gold standard in rape trials, but he might be surprised to learn how unreliable eyewitnesses are.

Above all, Atticus is a man who refuses to resign himself to the status quo. He might say that precedent and prejudice are insufficient. Men must be willing to fight for moral principles, and they must find the courage to do so.