Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee
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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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Atticus has a conversation with Scout regarding the upcoming trial and his defense of Tom Robinson, who is an innocent Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Scout asks her father why he is defending Tom, and he tries to explain to her that he is morally obligated to protect him. As a proponent of equality, Atticus is determined to prove Tom's innocence but understands the odds are not in his favor.

Scout then asks Atticus if he will win the case and, he responds truthfully by saying, "No, honey." Scout follows up by asking why he would even bother defending Tom if he doesn't have a chance of winning and Atticus says,

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

Atticus means that simply because the odds are heavily against him, there is never an excuse not to follow one's conscience and do the right thing. He is well aware of Maycomb's systemic racism but is determined to stand up for equality and justice at all costs.

Atticus is teaching Scout a lesson on "real courage," which he later emphasizes when his children interact with Mrs. Dubose. He is attempting to instill courage in Scout by teaching her the value of following her conscience in the face of adversity. Defending a Black man in a segregated society founded on Jim Crow laws is no easy task. However, Atticus is the only person willing to fight the uphill battle and behaves like a consummate role model for his children. His brief conversation with Scout regarding the upcoming trial teaches her about "real courage," the importance of following one's conscience, and doing the right thing in the face of adversity.

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In Chapter Nine of To Kill a Mockingbird, a boy named Cecil Jacob declares that, "Scout Finch's daddy defends n*ggers," after hearing that Atticus had been appointed as the defense attorney in Tom Robinson's case. Scout goes home and reports this to her father, who then explains the details of the case to her: a black man named Tom Robinson has been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (although Atticus simply refers to this act as something that Scout is not yet "old enough to understand"). 

Atticus explains that he must defend Tom because it is the nature of his work as a lawyer and tries to prepare her for the fact that she will likely hear some "ugly talk" about it in the future. When Scout asks Atticus if he is going to win the case, he responds that he won't but that it is necessary to defend Tom anyway, stating:

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

What Atticus is saying here is that it is a mark of weakness for one to quit before trying just because one already knows the outcome of a challenge. To defend Tom--despite knowing the odds that he is up against in a racist town in the South--is a valiant act, one that sends a message about the validity of a black man's life at a time when black communities are persecuted. The objective of this case is not to win; it is to exercise an individual's right under the law to a fair trial. Although Tom's trial will not be "fair" due to the fact that he is being pinned under the oppressive thumb of a white judicial system, he will at least have the opportunity to have his voice (and side of the story) heard. In this way, defending Tom is providing some small sense of justice to his family and community. 

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Atticus wants Scout to understand that just because something is difficult doesn't mean you should not do it if it is the right thing to do.

Atticus tells Scout that there is no way he is going to win the case when she gets into a fight with Cecil Jacobs after the boy insulted him.  Scout doesn’t understand why people are so upset with her father.  He explains to her that he is defending Tom Robinson.  Tom was accused of raping a white woman.  He is a black man.  To the people of Maycomb, that makes him guilty.

Atticus feels that just because he was assigned the Robinson case does not mean he should not put his best efforts into it.  He wants to try, even though he knows he will not win.  It is a matter of personal pride to him.

Scout tells Atticus that he sounds like Cousin Ike Finch, who likes to rehash the Civil War.

“It’s different this time,” he said. “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 that the people of Maycomb will not want to confront the racial realities of the case, but he feels that it is his job to show them.  It is common in Maycomb to assume that a black person is guilty, no matter what.  No one in Maycomb is willing to consider otherwise.  Atticus wants to give them a chance. 

When Mrs. Dubose dies, Atticus uses her battle with her morphine addiction as an example of moral courage.  He wants his children to remember that sometimes you have to do things that are very difficult, and perhaps even impossible.  The description he gives of Mrs. Dubose fighting her addiction could just as easily apply to his taking the Tom Robinson case. 

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. (Ch. 11)

Atticus realizes that it will be very hard to win Tom Robinson's case, because of Maycomb's deeply ingrained racism.  However, he wants to try, because it is the right thing to do for Tom Robinson and for Maycomb. He does not get Tom Robinson acquitted, but he does get the jury to deliberate longer than any other Maycomb jury has.  That shows progress.

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Atticus makes this statement in chapter 9. This is a crucial point in Atticus’ attempt to get Scout to understand the nature of right or wrong as it relates to the Tom Robinson case. Scout has been hearing talk about Atticus and his defense of Robinson at school. It’s hard for her to understand that Atticus is doing the right thing when so many others are saying he’s not.

When she asks, “. . . are we going to win it [the case],” Atticus is truthful with his response. He is trying to express the idea that winning is not the only value in trying to do something. Simply trying to do the right thing is worthwhile even if the results don’t appear to warrant it.

The value of Atticus’ work in this case was expressed shortly before this point when Scout asks why Atticus is defending Tom Robinson even though so many folks feel that he's doing the wrong thing. Atticus responds with:

“For a number of reasons. The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.”

In other words, a man has to live with the decisions he makes and the actions he takes. You can't expect to live one way and talk another.

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In Chapter 9 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus's reference to being "licked a hundred years before" is a reference to slavery and pre-Civil War days.

Prior to Atticus's reference, Scout had just been verbally attacked by Cecil Jacobs, who demanded to know why her "daddy defended niggers." Cecil's comment reflects the deep-seated racist views of the South. Feeling confused because she thinks Cecil has just pointed out that her father is doing a bad thing, Scout asks her father if he is defending a Negro, and Atticus's response is that all lawyers defend Negroes.

Atticus further continues to explain that he is defending Tom Robinson, who is "a member of Calpurnia's church," and his family members are known by Calpurnia to be "clean-living folks." When Scout next asks why he is defending Robinson, Atticus replies that he "couldn't hold up [his] head in town" if he didn't. Atticus's speech to Scout and responses to her questions indicate that Atticus is defending Robinson because he believes in Robinson's innocence and disbelieves in the town's racist views. Hence, by the time Atticus argues that, though he knows they'll lose the case, just because they "were licked a hundred years before" the case started, doesn't mean they shouldn't try to win, we know Atticus is referring to the racist views that gave birth to slavery and started the Civil War.

The novel is set during President Roosevelt's days of the New Deal, during the Great Depression, which was in the 1930s. Therefore, a 100 years prior to when the book is set would be the 1830s, days when slavery still reigned in the South and 30 years prior to the start of the Civil War. It was racism that gave birth to slavery and racism that kept African Americans from receiving the justice and freedom due to them as American citizens. Racism also gave birth to the Civil War because the South felt that maintaining an economy that relied on slave labor and their racist views were worthy of fighting to the death for. Though the South lost the war, Atticus is well aware that the fight to end racism is a losing battle, a battle in which those who disbelieved in racism "were licked," meaning defeated, and had been licked for the past hundred years. Hence, all in all, Atticus is using his reference to slavery and pre-Civil War days to show that those who are just, merciful, and non-racist have been being defeated by those who are racist for a very long time.

However, Scout misinterprets his meaning. She relates what he is saying to Cousin Ike Finch, Maycomb's only living Confederate veteran, who still complains of the South having lost to the Yankees its authority to uphold racist views through slavery. Atticus is too respectful a person to tell Scout that Cousin Ike's views are racist; he instead only tells her that, this time, the fight against racism is a fight between friends.

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Atticus is referring to slavery and prejudice in general. For the last hundred years at the time of the novel, African-Americans had been considered less than human. The majority of people in the story are prejudiced against them. Atticus is fighting a battle to clear a black man's name in spite of a white woman's testimony, and recognizes this as a losing battle. However, because he believes that all men are created equal, he wants to try to win for the sake of Tom Robinson, for the sake of equality, for the sake of all people's rights in this world. Society has already "licked" (or "beaten") Atticus and his defendant in the sense that most people are already convinced that Tom is in the wrong simply because of the color of his skin, but Atticus continues to fight for the rights of a black man because his personal code of ethics demands nothing less than this.

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