Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Essential Passage by Character: Atticus Finch

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Judge Taylor was saying something. His gavel was in his fist, but he wasn’t using it. Dimly, I saw Atticus pushing papers from the table into his briefcase. He snapped it shut, went to the court reporter and said something, nodded to Mr. Gilmer, and then went to Tom Robinson and whispered something to him. Atticus took his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the courtroom, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle toward the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up.
Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Syke’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 21, p. 211 (Harper Perennial: New York)


In the trial of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell, Atticus was named as the public defender for Tom. An African American living in the Black community of the outskirts of Maycomb, Alabama, Tom was accused of the crime by both Mayella, a nineteen-year-old white girl, and her father, Bob. The Ewells are considered as belonging to the “white trash” section of town. However, in 1930s Alabama, any accusation against a Black man of taking liberties with a white woman was extremely serious. Judge Taylor, who would be trying the case, appointed Atticus as the public defender (as opposed to another, more junior lawyer who was usually assigned such cases) knowing how divisive this case would become. Delayed for several months, the trial was held during the summer months on 1935.

During the trial, the evidence clearly showed that Tom could not have committed the crime. The bruises attributed to Tom on the right side of Mayella’s face would have had to have been made by the attacker’s left hand. However, Tom’s left hand was crippled, due to a farming accident in his youth. Tom, in his defense, states that he regularly stopped at the Ewells to help Mayella since he “felt sorry for her,” as no members of her family seemed to help her at all. The prosecutor, jury, and audience seem shocked that a Black man would think himself of such quality that he felt himself entitled to “feel sorry” for a white person.

Tom further relates that it was Mayella who attacked him, rather than the other way around. Bob Ewell, seeing what his daughter was doing, called Mayella a “whore” and rushed into the room. Knowing how indefensible his position was, thus incapacitating him from any means of self-defense, Tom rushed from the cabin. The sheriff, Heck Tate, was then called and an arrest was made.

The case did indeed prove divisive, and the entire town showed up at the courtroom for the trial. Jem and Scout had sneaked out of the house and taken refuge in the balcony with members of the Black community. Despite the obvious lack of evidence beyond the circumstantial, the jury, after several hours’ deliberation, finds Tom Robinson guilty of rape.

Atticus, speaking to Tom after the verdict is read, promises him that there is still hope, as he plans to file an appeal. Tom, however, is unresponsive.

Jem and Scout watch their father as he slowly packs up his briefs into his case. Instead of taking his usual exit out the side door, Atticus slowly walks up the middle aisle to the front. As Scout watches his lonely progression, she feels the hand of Reverend Sykes, the pastor of the Black church, on her shoulder. As she looks around, she notices all the Black people in the balcony on their feet.


As he told Scout months before the trial took place, Atticus knows that he was not going to win. Atticus tells her that he lost the case a hundred years before it even began. The entrenched racism of the entire country (not just the South) ensures that no African American would get a fair trial, one that would disregard the color of his or her skin. The possibility of a Black person gaining the victory over a white person is completely unacceptable in the eyes of the community, regardless of the personal regard they may feel for the Black man, or the contempt they may feel for the white.

It is with this understanding that Atticus accepts the case of defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, for the rape of a white girl. He knows that he is not going to win, but he also knows that he is obligated to try to win. By doing so, he gains a victory beyond the confines of the courtroom.

Atticus Finch, as an attorney and state legislator, has a deep regard for the rule of law, especially in its purpose to defend the weak against the unjust. He is more than able to use the law to the advantage of his clients, the realization of which caused the community to re-elect him year after year as their representative in the Alabama Congress.

Yet Atticus holds true to something even higher that state law, and that is moral law. Beyond the rules on the books, there is a foundation of justice that prevails over any other consideration. It might go against governmental dictates, it might even go against societal mores, but it did prevail. It is for this moral law that Atticus Finch fights the case of Tom Robinson. It is for this, knowing that he would not gain the legal victory, that Atticus knows he will attain moral victory. He fights because he knows the victory is in the fighting itself, not the eventual legal outcome.

By fighting this cause, Atticus’s purpose is to demonstrate to the court and to the community at large that Tom is a human being, with equal rights and equal protection under the law. Atticus wants to show the people the obvious bias in their racism, in forcing them to take sides with a white person whom they despise against a Black person whom they respect. While this lesson may have been lost on the white community at large, it is evident to the Black community. It is for this reason that they stand for Atticus as he walks out of the courtroom; out of respect for “fighting the good fight,” for gaining the moral victory, the community accepts Atticus as their standard-bearer, as one who would lead the way to a better world. Despite the legal loss, the Black community could see rays of hope that someday, somehow, they would finally achieve equality.

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Essential Passage by Character: Scout Finch