Essential Passage by Theme: Racism

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Last Updated on July 31, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1286

I was playing in it with the spoon. “I thought Mr. Cunningham was a friend of ours. You told me a long time ago he was.”
“He still is.”
“But last night he wanted to hurt you.”
Atticus placed his fork beside his knife and pushed his plate aside. “Mr. Cunningham is basically a good man,” he said, “he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.”
Jem spoke. “Don’t call that a blind spot. He’da killed you last night when he first went there.”
“He might have hurt me a little,” Atticus conceded, “but son, you’ll understand folks a little better when you’re older. A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr. Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know—doesn’t say much for them, does it?”
“I’ll say not,” said Jem.
“So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ’em to their senses, didn’t it?” said Atticus. “That proves something—that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children…you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute. That was enough.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 16, p. 157 (Harper Perennial: New York)

Summary

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Tom Robinson, arrested for the rape of Mayella Ewell, is incarcerated in Maycomb’s small but serviceable jail, which is located next to the offices where the town’s newspaper is published. In the days leading up to the trial, the white community is becoming more and more agitated. One night, a group of white men plan to meet at the jail. Atticus, hearing about the meeting, drives (uncharacteristically, since he usually walks everywhere) to the jail to stand guard. Jem and Scout of course cannot bear to be left behind, so after they are supposed to be in bed they sneak downtown and spy on the goings-on at the jail.

As the children approach the jail, they see a line of cars moving slowly toward the building where Tom Robinson is being held. Seeing Atticus sitting in a chair outside of the jail, Jem and Scout hide out of site and watch the proceedings.

The men command Atticus to move away from the prison door so that they can lynch Tom Robinson. When Atticus points out that Sheriff Tate is around somewhere, the men laugh and inform him that Tate is out in the woods on a “snipe hunt,” a misleading task that leads someone away from where a specific activity will be held. In other words, the men made sure that Tate was nowhere near the jail when they came to lynch Tom.

At the moment of greatest tension between Atticus and the men, the children approach the jail and move into the light. Atticus commands them strongly to go back home, but they refuse. One man seizes Jem by the collarbone, but Scout comes to his rescue and kicks his attacker in the leg. While Atticus still insists that the children go home, and Jem still refuses to leave, Scout looks out at the crowd of men. To her they seem like a faceless mass, until she spies a familiar face.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” she says, seeing the father of a classmate, and a man who had come to Atticus for legal assistance, despite the fact that he had no money. Cunningham, not believing that he should accept anyone’s charity, paid instead in goods such as firewood, nuts, and potatoes. Atticus had accepted these willingly, in order to save Cunningham’s dignity. Now, as one of the mob intent on attacking him, Cunningham is dragged into the light by Scout’s recognition.

Forgetting the purpose of the crowd, Scout addresses Cunningham as an individual, reminding him who she is and her relationship with his son. When she gets little response from Cunningham, she begins to mention the legal assistance that Atticus gave him. Without a word of condemnation, Scout carried on a friendly conversation with her father’s would-be attacker.

Mr. Cunningham, at last responding to Scout, then leads the men off into the night.

Later, Scout asks Atticus why Mr. Cunningham would do such a thing, since Atticus had been nice to him at a time of difficulty. Scout is confused that someone whom Atticus had told her was a friend turned out to be anything but.

Atticus responds that Mr. Cunningham is indeed their friend, but he has his “blind spots.” Jem has difficulty understanding how the desire to kill his father could be called a “blind spot.”

Atticus then explains that Mr. Cunningham was acting as a part of a mob. A mob is a senseless but living thing that acts as one unit. But that night, Mr. Cunningham was removed from the mob and became an individual human being by Scout. In treating him as an individual, Scout effectively reminded him that he was indeed a person, a father, and an honorable man.

Analysis

The theme of racism is prevalent throughout the plot from beginning to end, as is to be suspected in a tale set in 1930s Alabama. By telling it through the eyes of a child, Lee is able to present racism in its starkest, most honest terms, which is amazing since she wrote at the beginning of the Civil Rights era. As the reader looks at the community from Scout’s point of view, the nature of this drastic flaw in American history is given a unique perspective.

Scout has difficulty understanding the changed nature of Mr. Cunningham, someone who had always been nice to the Finch family, and indeed had benefited from Atticus’s mercy and understanding. She cannot see what could possibly justify such a radical change in Mr. Cunningham’s character.

As Atticus points out to her, Mr. Cunningham was acting as part of a mob. A mob is not human and thus cannot have the logic or understanding that an individual can. A mob ceases to think in terms of the human; the mob of the white community abandoned its individuality to look down on the Black community.

In the same way, the Black community is guilty of reverse discrimination. When Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to visit the Black church, they are faced with a demand to know why Calpurnia has brought white children to a Black church: “They have their place, and we have ours.” Both communities kept a strict segregation in place. However, Calpurnia, knowing the children as individuals, looks beyond race and expects others in this Christian community to do the same. The mob that meets at the jail to lynch Tom Robinson also ceases to function as an individual to another individual. While Tom has always been held in high regard by the white community, his crime against a white person goes against the normal tragedy of rape. It is not so much the rape that bothers them as it is the crossing of the racial barrier. Likewise, Bob Ewell attacks his daughter for being attracted to a Black man.

As Atticus tries to make Scout and Jem understand how racism can make a man change his very character, he points out that the acceptance of a person’s individual identity, as Scout did in the case of Mr. Cunningham, can, if not break, at least bend a person’s prejudice. Common humanity, placed squarely before the racist mob, has the power to soften a hardened heart and ensure the dignity inherent in every human soul.

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Essential Passage by Theme: Loss of Innocence