Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Maycomb town in the U.S. State of Alabama. The fictional town is home to the Finches. Atticus Finch, a widower, lives with his daughter, Scout Finch, and son, Jem Atticus, during the Great Depression. Racism is a vital hallmark of life in Maycomb. As a prominent lawyer, Atticus understands the issue of race in Alabama. He reminds his children not to “kill a mocking bird” because they do not harm people (Lee, 1960). Atticus emphasizes to Scout and Jem on the significance of showing empathy and just to others. Tom Robinson, a black man, in the racist community in Maycomb, faces accusations of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell. Atticus decides to represent Tom in a decision that angers the white community (Rapping, 2015). At the beginning of the trial, a lynch mob prepares to kill Tom, but Scout diffuses the tension after posing a question to the leader of the mob. Atticus presents incriminating evidence that links Bob Ewell to the rape allegations. However, the white jury dismisses the evidence and convicts Tom. Eventually, Tom is killed in his attempt to escape prison. Earlier, Scout and Jem developed an interest in Boo Bradley and engaged in a miniaturized demonstration of prejudice. The children frequently trespassed into the Radley property to mock Boo’s reclusive behavior. However, Boo’s significance comes to the fore when he stabs Bob Well, who had embarked on a vengeance mission targeting the Finches. Boo’s action brings Scout to the realization that Boo has become a human being and recalls her father’s emphasis on sympathy and understanding of differences. Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird illuminates the racial bias in the criminal justice system in the South.
Superficially, the story describes life in the small town of Maycomb, but it contains underlying issues about the country’s criminal justice system. The case involves the trial of Tom Robinson, who is facing allegations of rape in the 1930s. Bob Ewell’s daughter, Mayella, is the victim in the case. When Atticus Finch decides to represent the defendant, he takes the case seriously. In a racist town like Maycomb, Atticus understands the challenges of seeking justice, especially by minority populations (Rapping, 2015). As a white attorney, he experiences ridicule, slurs, and taunts from both children and neighbors. Jem and Scout experience abuse from children in a Christmas event. They have become victims of racism because of the position of their father in the case. One of the children in school wonders why Scout’s father represents niggers (Banks, 2006). The taunts that Scout and Jem encounter in school suggest that legal representation for black suspects was not the norm in Alabama’s small towns.
Perhaps one would wonder why a white attorney would represent a black defendant in the story. According to Banks (2006), it was unlikely that a black attorney would have been available in a small town in Alabama. Only four black lawyers practiced in the State’s major cities in the 1930s. Black lawyers threatened the social order in the South, and the chances of appointing a black lawyer to represent a black defendant were dim (Banks, 2006). Black lawyering portended danger for practicing attorneys, and it explains why the judge appointed Atticus in this case. Racism comes out as an overriding theme in this case. On the day of trial, the lynch mob (predominantly the members of the white community) seek to lynch Tom even before he is heard. This situation underscores the influence of race in the pursuit of restorative justice in Alabama and the United States at large. As Atticus steps to represent Robinson, he understands that winning a case like this could be a daunting task because racism is “Maycomb’s usual disease” (Lee, 1960). With this awareness of the nature of the case, the next section explores the pertinent facts in the case and includes Atticus’s legal position on the issue before trial.
During the trial, Atticus makes a compelling argument that should exonerate Tom Robinson over his alleged involvement in the rape. Atticus argues at the trial that Tom could not have raped Mayella. He believes that Mayella’s attacker is left-handed with both arms. Mayella’s right eye was blacked, and her right side of the face showed beatings (Lee, 1960). Atticus’s fact tends to reveal that the left-handed accuser could have perpetrated the act of rape on Mayella. During a cotton-gin accident earlier, Robinson lost his left arm. The defendant’s loss of the left arm lends credence to the notion that the perpetrator could have been someone else other than Tom (Dare, 2001). Meanwhile, in the courtroom, something else came up. Judge Taylor noticed that Bob Ewell was left-handed: “You’re left-handed, Mr. Ewell” (Lee, 1960). The judge’s pronouncement angers Bob Ewell as he wonders what his left-handedness had to do with the rape.
Tom Robinson lost the case during trial, and the jury sentenced him for the rape of Mayella Ewell. The decision highlights racial injustice that is bedeviling this white-dominated town in Alabama. To reinforce the ill of racial injustice, Lee highlights the shooting of the rabid dog by Atticus to symbolize his unrelenting struggle against racism and prejudice in Maycomb.
Atticus’s central argument is premised on the claim that Tom did not break any law. Instead, Atticus observed that Mayella Ewell “violated the code” when she advanced towards the accused (Stephens, 1995). To further reinforce his proposition, the defendant’s lawyer held that Mayella did not commit the crime, but merely broke an honored code of the Maycomb society. Fundamentally, Atticus argued that the nature of Maycomb society was one where racism was rampant, and sexual relationships between a white woman and a black man were somewhat forbidden. By labeling Mayella’s behavior as a violation of the time-honored code, the lawyer emphasized that the law should prevail when judging Tom in this case (Stephens, 1995). Atticus also recognizes that judging Tom may occur in the backdrop of the code of the Maycomb community rather than the law.
Both Bob and Mayella implicated Robinson in an attempt to cover a father’s shame and guilt. Atticus argues that the affliction on Mayella’s face are wounds that her father inflicted on her. When Bob found Mayella with Tom, he accused her of being a whore and beat her up: “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya” (Lee, 1960). Tom reveals these words as said by Bob Ewell upon encountering him with Mayella. When pressed further to reveal more information about the ordeal, Tom admits that Mayella made advances towards her. Even though he tried to resist, he did not want to be ugly to her (Lee, 1960). Tom ran away when Ewell arrived because striking a white woman at the time of the story was unimaginable. Running away was one way of escaping the consequences of being implicated in a crime in the racist town. He tells Atticus that if he (Atticus) were a nigger like him, Atticus would be scared too.
Dramatic swings occur where Bob Ewell meet his death while embarking on a mission to revenge. Bob had made the Finches and the judge Taylor the targets of his vengeance. The story reports Bob as menacing Mrs. Robinson, breaking into the judge’s house, and attacking Scout and Jem (Lee, 1960). Bob met his death when he attacked Scout and Jem on their way home from a Halloween party. The opening statement reveals Jem’s badly broken arm. Scout tells the reader that her brother injured his arm at the elbow at the age of thirteen (Lee, 1960). This statement sets the mind of the reader to expect something more: how the thirteen-year-old boy would overcome the challenge brought about by a broken leg. The closing statement revisits what Atticus had told Scout about rushing into judgments. Scout recalls her father telling her that most people are nice when “you finally see them” (Lee, 1960). This statement intends to remind Scout to treat people with respect regardless of differences in race, color, and gender. The statement also underscores Atticus’s persistence in the struggle against racial injustice.
To Kill a Mockingbird cautions against making superficial judgments. When the story ends, Scout can relate to what her father told her about the innocence of a mockingbird. Although Tom Robinson and Boo Bradley come out as characters that are most misunderstood, they exhibit inner innocence. Scout’s perception of Boo changes after his dramatic effort to save her from Bob Ewell. Robinson’s unjust death cast a dark shadow of life in a racist society where respect for society’s time-honored code supersedes the rule of law.
- Banks, T. L. (2006). To kill a mockingbird (1962): Lawyering in an unjust society. The University of Maryland, Baltimore.
- Dare, T. (2001). Lawyers, ethics, and to kill a mockingbird. Philosophy and Literature, 25(1), 127-141.
- Lee, H. (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. J. B. Lippincott & Co.
- Rapping, J. A. (2015). It’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird: The Need for Idealism in the Legal Profession. Mich. L. Rev., 114, 847.
- Stephens, R. O. (1995). The Law and the Code in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Southern Cultures, 1(2), 215-227.