Reexamining ‘Mockingbird’ after 60 years
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Published in 1960, the book is a literary classic that won Lee a Pulitzer Prize. The film adaptation earned Gregory Peck an Academy Award.
The story takes place during the Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The narrator’s father Atticus Finch, a lawyer and state legislator, is appointed to represent Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Many scholars have studied the implications of Lee’s work. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the most read literary works in American history with over 30 million copies sold. The book has been cited for its influence on the civil rights movement and the character of Atticus Finch has been lauded as the model father, as well as possessing the integrity and temperament for which all lawyers should aspire.
In this time of racial tumult some have taken a closer look at the character of Atticus Finch. While we remember Finch as a heroic figure who stood up to racism and tried to save the life of a black man in a racist southern town, Finch tolerated racism and even made excuses for it.
Just like President Donald Trump, who said that violent white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia were “good people,” Finch lauds the “character” of racists in Maycomb. A decade ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about Finch in the New Yorker.
Gladwell examined Finch’s thoughts about Walter Cunningham, a Maycomb man who attempted to lynch Tom Robinson, “Cunningham, Finch tells his daughter, is ‘basically a good man,’ who ‘just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.’”
In a recent essay for the website Electric Literature, Sandra Schmuhl Long reminds us of a conversation Finch had with his son about their neighbor Mrs. Dubose - who screamed racial slurs at his (Finch’s) children daily after learning that Finch would defend Tom Robinson - (she) is a “great lady” and “the bravest woman I ever knew.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” examines a number of significant issues (race, gender, poverty, domestic violence, courage and cowardice) through the lens of a rural southern criminal justice system. The legal system of Finch’s mid-1930s and even Lee’s of 1960 are, in some ways, very different than today’s - and, unfortunately, in some ways very similar.
Racism continues to permeate the criminal justice system. If this country is ever truly to eradicate racism, making excuses for, or holding in esteem men and women who openly spew hate, must stop. While Finch stood up for justice he did not stand up to his neighbors.
He tolerated racism, and we found out in 2015, with the controversial posthumous publication of Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” Finch himself was a racist. He cavorted with racists and expressed racist views.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” after Robinson’s conviction, Finch and his son, Jem, discussed the real or perceived flaws of the criminal justice system. Jem told Finch, “Lots of folks have been hung - hanged - on circumstantial evidence.” Finch responded, “I know, and lots of ‘em probably deserved it, too - but in the absence of eyewitnesses there’s always a doubt, sometimes only the shadow of a doubt. The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There is always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent.”
For people of color, racism in the criminal justice system goes far beyond the finding of guilt. Racism is present from the moment an investigation ensues until a sentence is imposed and beyond.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a timeless classic. Every critical reading provides new insight into its characters and more importantly into the struggle to understand hate. It was clear in 1960 that Lee condemned racism, but 60 years later her work forces us to confront the evil of merely tolerating racism.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.