What does Atticus mean when he says "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win" in To Kill a Mockingbird?
In chapter 9, Scout has a conversation with her father concerning Cecil Jacobs's comments earlier in the day. Atticus elaborates on his unpopular decision to defend Tom Robinson and tells his daughter that he will not win the case. When Scout asks why Atticus chooses to defend Tom when he knows that he will lose, Atticus tells his daughter,
"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win" (Lee, 78).
Atticus realizes the power of the prejudiced judicial system in the Deep South and understands that Tom will be found guilty, regardless of if he is innocent. However, Atticus is willing to valiantly defend Tom in front of a prejudiced jury because it is the right thing to do. Even though Atticus has no chance of winning the case, he aims to defend Tom to the best of his ability. Atticus's comment concerning his defense of Tom Robinson also correlates with his idea of "real courage," which is "when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what" (Lee, 116). Atticus not only encourages his children to do the right thing regardless of popularity or success, he also demonstrates what "real courage" looks like by defending Tom Robinson in front of the racist community of Maycomb.
When Scout asks Atticus if they are going to win the trial, he tells her they won’t. The tradition of racism is so strong in Maycomb that just the fact that a black man was accused of rape by a white woman is enough.
Scout compares the concept to the Civil War, but Atticus tries to explain.
This time we aren't fighting the Yankees, we're fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they're still our friends and this is still our home. (ch 9)
Atticus knows he is not going to win. He knows that he is generating hard feelings and stirring up trouble in Maycomb. Yet he continues to defend Tom Robinson, because it is the right thing to do. He tells Scout he could not hold his head up if he did not.
Atticus knows he has an important place in society. Even if some people do not like what he is doing, he is still well-respected in the town of Maycomb.
Atticus is also a remarkable man because he is doing what he thinks is right, and teaching his children about moral courage. He sets a good example for them to do what they need to do no matter how difficult it may be, and even if the result will not likely be what he wants. It's the effort that counts. He knows he is going to do his best, even if he can't win.