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In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, in Chapter 16, Jem, Dill and Scout make their way into the courthouse as the trial of Tom Robinson is about to begin.
Scout becomes separated from the boys and finds herself in the midst of the Idlers' Club, a group of men who know the court system very well, according to Atticus, because they spend so much time at the courthouse.
This was a group of white-shirted, khaki-trousered, suspendered old men who hd spent their lives doing nothing and passed their twilight days doing same on pine benches under the live oaks on the square…Normally, they were the court's only spectators, and today them seemed resentful of the interruption of their comfortable routine.
The courthouse is packed and the Idlers' Club does not have the place to themselves as is usually the case. While Scout tries to stand unnoticed, she listens to the men speaking, realizing that Atticus is the topic of their conversation—Scout learns here that Atticus was appointed to defend Tom Robinson, which puts a new light on things.
"Lemme tell you something' now, Billy," a third said, "you know the court appointed [Atticus] to defend this n***er."
"Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That's what I don't like about it."
Scout figures that this news may change the way everyone acts regarding Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson—the alleged (black) rapist of a white woman.
This was news, news that put a different light on things: Atticus had to, whether he wanted to or not. I thought it odd that he hadn't said anything to us about it—we could have used it many times in defending him and ourselves. He had to, that's why he was doing it…But did it explain the town's attitude? The court appointed Atticus to defend him. Atticus aimed to defend him. That's what they didn't like about it. It was confusing.
Scout realizes that her father was assigned the case. He is a lawyer and plans to do his best by Tom Robinson. She notes that the situation is a confusing one to her: this is because the prejudiced members of Maycomb's population would understand the court case being assigned to him, but would NOT understand his decision to do his duty as a servant of the court and the people he defends—if that defendant is black. The man is inferring that he wishes Atticus chose to do nothing for Tom. However, we know Atticus too well: he judges people for their character (and even then, quietly), rather than by their skin color. He is a man of principle who would never turn someone down if he or she asked for his help.
Atticus represents the moral backbone of the town of Maycomb, deep in the South.
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