In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, how does Atticus explain the mob's actions to Scout?
This is an excellent question. This incident is one of the most important points in the book, in my opinion. Here Atticus confronts a mob. The mob, led by Mr. Cunningham, approaches Atticus to harm Tom Robinson - probably to kill him. Atticus stands in the way, and they are about to harm him as well. The mob will do what it takes to do what they want to do.
This is when Scout enters the picture and innocently strikes up a conversation with Mr. Cunningham.
As the two talk, Mr. Cunningham is ashamed that he would even attempt such a thing. It took a child to quell this mob, and the mob comes to its senses. Eventually they depart.
When the mob leaves, Atticus explains to Jem that Scout made the men in the mob see things from the perspective of another, in this case, Atticus' perspective. In other words, Mr. Cunningham walked in the skin of Atticus for a while. More importantly perhaps, a child was able to curb the rabid instincts of people.
Here is the dialogue:
He might have hurt me a little,” Atticus conceded, “but son, you’ll understand folks a little better when you’re older. A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr. Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know— doesn’t say much for them, does it?”
“I’ll say not,” said Jem.
“So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ‘em to their senses, didn’t it?” said Atticus. “That proves something—that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children... you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute. That was enough.”
Atticus explains to Scout that a mob is always made up of people. He is trying to explain that, although mobs appear to be a large group, perhaps even an intimidating group, they are made up of individuals who can make individual choices to change their actions. This is a message that Atticus has been sending to Scout throughout the book at various points. Every individual has the right to make his or her own choices.
In this particular mob, Mr. Cunningham made an individual choice not to continue to threaten Atticus. His choice influenced the choices of the other men in the group. This is a powerful moment because Mr. Cunningham made this choice based on Scout's innocent actions to begin conversing with him about his son, Walter. As a result, his opinion changed, and he then changed the opinions of the other men. It was a mob no more. Any small action can change the tide of a mob, either positively or negatively.
So, individual choice is a powerful thing and Atticus was trying to remind Scout of this. He's also trying to show her the power of seeing a mob as individuals that you know rather than a mob of threatening strangers.
Atticus explains that "a mob's always made up of people. . . . every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know . . ." So, while the members of the mob are seemingly unreasonable, they are still acquaintances and fellow citizens of Maycomb. Atticus goes on to tell Scout that it took her speaking to Mr. Cunningham "to bring 'em to their senses." Scout's mention of Mr. Cunningham's son Walter changes the angry man's perspective; he "stands in the shoes" of Atticus for a moment, since Atticus is also a father of young children. It is this one moment of clarity that humanizes Atticus and dispels the mob.