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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Why does Atticus think he can't win Tom Robinson's case in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Atticus thinks he can't win in his defense of Tom Robinson because of Maycomb's systemic racism. As Atticus explains to Uncle Jack, the case will come down to whose word the jury will believe. They are not likely to believe Tom's word over that of Mayella and her father, despite how suspicious they are.

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Though Atticus has agreed to represent Tom Robinson in his forthcoming trial, he knows full well that he doesn't stand a chance of getting an acquittal for his client. This is because, in the Deep South of the 1930s, an accusation of rape and assault against a white woman by a Black man was tantamount to a conviction.

Racists and white supremacists were horrified at anything that smacked of racial mixing, and used the law to clamp down hard on the merest suggestion of sexual activity between the races, especially between black men and white women.

As an experienced lawyer, Atticus knows this as well as anyone. He may believe in the majesty of the law; he may have a firm commitment to justice. But at the same time, he's not naïve. He knows that, in the eyes of the people of Maycomb, Tom Robinson is already guilty before he's even set foot inside the court.

It doesn't matter that the evidence against Tom is flimsy to the point of non-existence; he's an African American man charged with raping and assaulting a white woman, and to just about everyone in town, that's evidence enough. His forthcoming trial, therefore, will be little more than a charade, a pretense of justice designed to provide a respectable façade for the exercise of white supremacy.

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Atticus recognizes that he does not have a chance of winning the case because it is a Black man's word against a white woman's. In the Jim Crow South, racism is deeply embedded into the culture and black people are considered second-class citizens with little to no rights. Black people are discriminated against and live separately in Maycomb's segregated society. Atticus understands that a prejudiced, all-white jury would never acquit a Black man charged with raping a white woman. The very nature of his client's accused crime is provocative enough to sway the jurors against Tom Robinson.

Although Atticus realizes he has no chance of winning the case, he plans to reveal the truth and hopes to "jar the jury." Even though the Ewells are the most despicable family in the entire county and Tom Robinson has a stellar reputation, Atticus does not expect the jurors to vote in Tom's favor. Despite the hopeless situation, Atticus risks his reputation and sacrifices his family's well-being by courageously defending Tom Robinson to the best of his ability.

Atticus had hoped to never have a case of this magnitude but obediently follows Judge Taylor's decision to have him represent Tom Robinson. Following the trial and Tom's tragic death, Scout recognizes the full extent of her father's predicament by saying,

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.

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Atticus understands that winning the Tom Robinson case is virtually impossible due to the systemic racism and prejudice that is prevalent throughout Maycomb, Alabama. In Chapter 9, Scout asks her father if he has a chance of winning the case, and Atticus says, "No, honey" (Lee 48). Scout then asks her father why he is even trying, and Atticus says, "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win" (Lee 48). Later on, Uncle Jack asks Atticus if he has a chance of winning the case, and Atticus says,

"It couldn’t be worse, Jack. The only thing we’ve got is a black man’s word against the Ewells’. The evidence boils down to you-did—I-didn’t. The jury couldn’t possibly be expected to take Tom Robinson’s word against the Ewells'" (Lee 55).

Atticus realizes that the jury will not accept Tom's testimony as truth for the simple fact that Tom is an African American. In 1930s Alabama, segregation was commonplace, and Jim Crow laws were enacted to separate and discriminate against black people. The Post-Reconstruction era promoted systemic racism throughout the South and Atticus is essentially challenging the entire culture by defending a black man. The jury could not possibly rule in favor of Tom and subject themselves to the cultural taboo of favoring "Negroes."

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Atticus mentions to Jim and Scout that the case is sensitive and the whole world is basically against them from the beginning because it's one black man's word against several white people. No matter how upstanding the black man or how unappealing the white people, the whites will always be listened to before the black man's word is considered. Atticus tells Jim and Scout that he isn't just defending Tom Robinson: he's fighting 100 years of history and he is not going to win against all that precedence, no matter how great an attorney he may be.

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