What does Miss Maudie mean by "We are paying the highest tribute we can pay a man" in To Kill a Mockingbird?
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When the people of Maycomb needed someone to come to their rescue, they always sought out Atticus Finch. It was Judge Taylor who personally asked Atticus to defend Tom Robinson instead of the regular public defender; Taylor knew Atticus would be the best man to prove Tom's innocence to a jury he knew had already made up its mind. When Sheriff Tate needed someone to kill the mad dog that was prowling Maycomb's streets, it was Atticus to whom he handed his rifle. Elected regularly as Maycomb's representative to the Alabama legislature without opposition, the town respected and trusted Atticus. When Miss Maudie made her statement about the town "paying the highest tribute we can pay a man," she meant that the people of Maycomb always knew they could trust Atticus to do the right thing. Not all people agreed with him, but they all knew he was the best man for any job that he was called upon to undertake.
In chapter 24 of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, everyone learns that Tom Robinson is killed while trying to jump over the jail fence. It was the jail guards who did this. They supposedly shot warning shots in the air, but then went for the kill. In this chapter we also learn that, to them, they were not shooting at Tom Robinson: They were aiming to shoot a black man, plain and simple. For that reason alone, they may have felt that they were doing the right thing anyway.
Atticus is quite distraught as he listens to the news. He knows perfectly well that Tom's death was vicious and even possibly pre-meditated. He knows that no prisoner gets shot that many times just out of warning. On the other hand Aunt Alexandra, Atticus's sister, was even more concerned because of Atticus's lack of safety in the town since he is Tom Robinson's defense lawyer. Miss Maudie responds to Aunt Alexandra's worries by saying:
"Have you ever thought of it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we're paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It's that simple."
"Who?" Aunt Alexandra never knew she was echoing her twelve-year-old nephew.
"The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who Pay a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord's kindness am I.” Miss Maudie's old crispness was returning: "The handful of people in this town with background, that's who they are."
In this powerful rebuttal Maudie basically says that, as long as there is ONE more person in Maycomb with the sense of humility, kindness and justice that exists in the person of Atticus Finch, things will look up. That the best way to honor the sacrifice of Atticus Finch is to believe in that his sacrifice is worth making. They must keep the faith in knowing that the time he spent on this case, and the heavy blow this case has given to his reputation have not been in vain. That, in fact, his actions will serve as a legacy for all the people who wish to be, but do not dare to be, like Atticus Finch. Who knows? Maybe Atticus will end up being the model citizen of Maycomb and many more will follow his steps. However, the only way to open the door to a better Maycomb is to allow Atticus Finch in along with his life philosophy, and the sacrifice he has made on behalf of Tom Robinson. Believing in Atticus and his view is to honor Atticus and his view. It is touching the nerve of Maycomb that nobody else has dared to touch before. This is the stuff that history is made of. What better tribute than to believe in a man who is about to change the history of a town forever?
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