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In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Mr. Braxton Underwood is the owner and editor of the town’s newspaper, The Maycomb Tribune. A man prone to drink – mainly from the jug of cherry wine that was never far from his desk – he was a product of the Old South and held to certain racist views regarding the role of blacks in society. He was also, however, a man committed to a certain set of principles regarding the constitutional system of justice and a defendant’s right to a proper trial even when demographics dictated that no such trial could be fairly conducted. In other words, he was prejudiced against blacks, but believed Tom Robinson was entitled to a trial following Mayella Ewell’s accusation of rape – an accusation, the trial proceedings would reveal, with no basis in fact. It was Underwood’s commitment to the processes of justice that compelled his actions that evening in front of the jail when Atticus was confronted by an angry lynch mob while the newspaper editor sat silently above with a shotgun covering the lawyer’s back.
While Underwood’s character is revealed in that confrontation in front of the jail, it is only after Tom Robinson’s death that Scout is exposed to the full measure of this newspaper editor’s commitment to justice. The outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial had never truly been in doubt. As Scout notes in Chapter 25, of Lee’s novel, “Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.” What impresses Scout about Mr. Underwood, however, is the column he published after Tom was killed despite the risk – negligible though it was – of losing business for his principled stand. Scout describes the situation as follows:
“Mr. Underwood didn’t talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand. Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping. He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in The Montgomery Advertiser.”
The outstanding point that Mr. Underwood made in his newspaper column was that, irrespective of a man’s race, killing a disabled person, even one trying to escape prison, was an absolute moral wrong for which there was no excuse in what was purportedly a civilized society.
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