In Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, what does Scout see clearly for the first time when she reads Underwood's claim that Tom's death was a senseless killing?
In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Braxton Underwood is the sole proprietor of the local newspaper, The Maycomb Tribune. He is also a drunk and a bigot. His newspaper, Lee’s narrator, Scout, suggests, is not particularly well-respected, nor is Underwood:
“He rarely gathered news; people brought it to him. It was said that he made up every edition of The Maycomb Tribune out of his own head and wrote it down on the linotype. This was believable.”
Underwood, however, is a newspaperman to the core, and is possessed of a sense of dignity and righteousness that manifests itself throughout the novel. A glimpse of his courage and deeply-held sense of right and wrong occurs in Chapter 15, when Atticus Finch is forced to face down a lynch mob outside the jail where Tom Robinson is being held pending trial for the rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of the town’s most virulent racist, Bob Ewell. Atticus, with the unexpected help of Scout, succeeds in convincing the mob to depart. It is soon revealed, though, that Underwood, whose office is located above the jail, and who lives in that office, was standing ready in his window with a shotgun in the event Atticus needed help. In the aftermath of that episode, Atticus notes, “You know, it’s a funny thing about Braxton,” said Atticus. “He despises Negroes, won’t have one near him.” Yet, Underwood is the only member of the community, other than Atticus, who stands ready in the hour of need to defend justice.
It is in this context that Underwood’s newspaper column following the killing of Tom Robinson appears, and strikes Scout as peculiar, but that ultimately provides for her edification. In Chapter 25, Scout describes Underwood’s reaction to Tom’s death, and the meaning of his heart-felt column:
“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.”
“How could this be so, I wondered, as I read Mr. Underwood’s editorial. Senseless killing—Tom had been given due process of law to the day of his death; he had been tried openly and convicted by twelve good men and true; my father had fought for him all the way. Then Mr. Underwood’s meaning became clear: 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.”
It is through Mr. Underwood’s outrage, as expressed in his newspaper editorial, that Scout is awaken to the reality of the world in which she lives. Tom never stood a chance irrespective of facts or the eloquence of his attorney. A black man in the American South was not going to receive justice, especially when it is his word against that of a white woman -- even one of Mayella Ewell’s suspect nature. The young girl finally understands that the racial prejudices that conspired to murder Tom Robinson are infinitely more powerful than the physical and mental courage exhibited by her father.