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?

When Atticus 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, he means that though he knows the prejudice in Maycomb will most likely lead to a guilty sentence for Tom, it is still important that Atticus try to defend him.

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In chapter 9, Atticus talks to Scout about a fight she had gotten into with Cecil Jacobs at school. Atticus believes that people should attempt to keep the peace, even if others attempt to use words to start societal division and violence. Atticus encourages his daughter, Scout, to live a peaceful life, even if others speak unkindly to her. He explains:

"You might hear some ugly talk about [my involvement with Tom Robinson's courtcase], but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don't let 'em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change . . . " 

Scout often turns to violence as a method of dealing with her quarrels and disagreements. Rather than using her words as a weapon, she uses her hands. Atticus wants her to return to using words to express what she believe in. After this conversation, where Atticus explains the importance of this court case and instructs Scout to use words instead of violence, Scout asks him if he will win the case. He responds bluntly:

"No, honey."

"Then why--"

"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

In this passage, "licked" means defeated or conquered. Atticus is not merely concerned with winning this court case. He realizes that he has a great difficulty, racial prejudice, that is hindering his defense of Tom Robinson. Tom has been accused by a white family of raping a white woman (Mayella Ewell); because he is opposed by white-skinned people, it is highly unlikely that he can win the court case. 

Nonetheless, it is still important for Atticus to defend Tom Robinson because he believes he is innocent. Throughout the text, the symbol of a mockingbird is used to express the idea of innocence. Tom Robinson is considered to be a mockingbird, or an innocent being, that Atticus believes deserves to be defended. Not only does Atticus try to live a morally upright life but he also tries to train his children to live virtuously. He teaches them to defend the innocent, such as when he teaches his children that they can shoot blue jays and other mean birds, but that they should never shoot innocent song birds (ie: mockingbirds).

This theme, teaching morality, is seen many times in the novel. Many of these lessons are discussed when Scout climbs onto Atticus's lap as he is reading in the evenings. Scout sometimes climbs into Atticus's lap when she wants comfort, when she wants to read with him, or when she wants to talk to him about life. In chapter 26, Atticus tells Scout that she is getting "so big now, [that he'd] just have to hold part of her" (331). This is a sign that Scout is growing into a wise young adult woman; the moral lessons that she's been learning from Atticus are helping her (as well as Jem and even Dill) to grow up.

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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.

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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.


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