Scout learns that her father was appointed to defend Tom Robinson. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, it states, “The court appointed Atticus to defend him. Atticus aimed to defend him. That’s what they didn’t like about it. It was confusing.” Why are the townspeople upset? What is it that Scout doesn’t understand? 

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The townspeople are upset because they don't think that Tom Robinson should be defended at all. As far as they're concerned he's guilty, and in time-honored Southern fashion there's nothing they'd like better than to see Tom lynched from the nearest tree. He's a black man accused of raping a white woman, and for most people in town, that's more than enough "evidence" to see him swing.

The people of Maycomb are also profoundly unhappy at the fact that Atticus has been assigned Tom Robinson's case. Unlike the hapless Maxwell Green, Atticus will give the very best legal defense that he can give. This will give legal proceedings the feel of a proper trial instead of the usual circus. And as very few white folk in town actually want a proper trial, this makes them unhappy.

Scout doesn't really understand any of this. She's too young and too naive to comprehend the depths of racial prejudice that exists in Maycomb. Seeing things through the eyes of a child, she can't understand why people are so determined that Tom shouldn't be given a proper defense. It's only as she grows older that she'll begin to understand the corrosive part that systemic racial prejudice plays in the public life of Maycomb.

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Although Atticus was specifically appointed by Judge Taylor to defend Tom Robinson, the prejudiced townspeople are upset that he is going to valiantly defend his client. In the racist town of Maycomb, the majority of the citizens criticize Atticus for preparing to defend a black man. They are not concerned with Tom Robinson's innocence and do not want to upset their traditional way of life, which constitutes living in a segregated society where black people are treated like second-class citizens and have no rights.

Typically, cases like Tom Robinson's are given to the inexperienced Maxwell Green, who does not give any effort when asked to defend his black clients. However, Judge Taylor favors racial equality and justice, which is why he appoints Atticus to the case. Judge Taylor knows that Atticus is a morally upright, tolerant man, who will valiantly defend Tom Robinson. Atticus is not concerned with the community's opinions regarding his choice to defend Tom and follows his conscience. The racist townspeople do not begrudge Atticus for taking the case but are upset that he is willing to defend Tom to the best of his ability. They wish that Atticus would not give any effort and lose the case on purpose. At this point in the novel, Scout is too naive to understand why her racist community is upset at her father for simply doing the job he was told to do. She lacks insight regarding her community's racist ideologies and does not understand that her father is indirectly threatening their prejudiced society by championing equality, justice, and rights for black people.

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Scout (and sometimes the reader) is understandably confused. Why are the townspeople upset that Atticus is going to do his job? The answer lays in the race relations in the south at the time.

According to U.S. law, anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford a lawyer can have one appointed by the court. It is the job of this public defender to represent the client fairly, giving him or her the best defense possible. Atticus was appointed to defend Tom Robinson against the charge of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell.

Scout understands this part clearly enough. However, in her racially charged society at that time, justice was not meted out equally. African Americans did not generally receive fair trials. Remember, this is a time when they were treated as second-class citizens. They could not share restaurants, transportation, or even stores, with whites.

The general sentiment throughout Maycomb was that Atticus should do the absolute minimal amount possible to help Tom Robinson. Certainly, Atticus should not seriously defend an African American in a case involving a white woman. Because she was white, she must be right.

When it became clear that Atticus intended to mount the same high quality defense he would give to a white man, the townspeople were shocked. It was a betrayal of a deeply ingrained understanding in Southern society: African Americans were not equal to whites, and anyone who treated them as equals was violating a valued social order.

Therefore, the people of Maycomb could accept that Atticus was appointed to defend Tom Robinson. After all, someone had to be. What they resented was that Atticus treated Tom the same way he would have treated a white man. He was not going to just go through the motions of a trial; he was going to adamantly defend him in court. That was unacceptable in the town’s eyes. Atticus was expected to give Tom as little help as possible.

The fact that Atticus took a stand against the expectations of the town in order to maintain his personal integrity establishes both theme and conflict in the novel.

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