Atticus says, "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win." What does he mean?

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In chapter nine, Scout gets into an altercation with Cecil Jacobs at school when he criticizes Atticus for defending a black man. She comes home and tells her father that he must be wrong because the entire community disagrees with his decision. Atticus proceeds to explain to Scout that he will be defending Tom Robinson, a black man, even though his decision is unpopular with the majority of Maycomb's community. Atticus goes on to tell Scout that defending Tom Robinson is the right thing to do and he couldn't live with himself if he did not valiantly represent Tom. When Scout asks Atticus if he is going to win the case, Atticus tells her that he will not win. When Scout asks why Atticus is still going to defend Tom when he knows that he will lose the case, Atticus says,

Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win (Lee, 78).

Atticus is essentially teaching his daughter a lesson in real courage and the importance of following one's heart and moral obligations. He wants to show Scout that important issues are worth fighting for, so he encourages her to follow her conscience at all times. Atticus is attempting to show his daughter that real courage is when you face a challenge head-on because it is the right thing to do, and you don't back down despite facing adversity. Atticus not only preaches the importance of true courage but also lives his message by defending Tom Robinson in front of the prejudiced jury and community.

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Atticus is referring to slavery and prejudice in general. For the last hundred years at the time of the novel, African-Americans had been considered less than human. The majority of people in the story are prejudiced against them. Atticus is fighting a battle to clear a black man's name in spite of a white woman's testimony, and recognizes this as a losing battle. However, because he believes that all men are created equal, he wants to try to win for the sake of Tom Robinson, for the sake of equality, for the sake of all people's rights in this world. Society has already "licked" (or "beaten") Atticus and his defendant in the sense that most people are already convinced that Tom is in the wrong simply because of the color of his skin, but Atticus continues to fight for the rights of a black man because his personal code of ethics demands nothing less than this.

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