Laura Wing, 3rd Year Student, USF Law School
"A Lesson in Advocacy"
by Laura Wing
Some goals are so worthy that it is glorious even to fail. Atticus Finch may have failed to achieve justice for Tom Robinson, but he helped change the society that wrongfully convicted Tom. To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Georgia during the Depression, a time and place in which racism was so rampant that it destroyed any chance for African-Americans to obtain a fair trial. Even though the rule of law stated that blacks had rights and were entitled to due process, the social code of the South said that blacks were second class citizens. Atticus Finch refused to play by the social rules, and in doing so changed the minds of the community and gave life to the rule of law.
Social rules had greater force than the rule of law in the Jim Crow South, even when the social rule came in direct conflict with the rule of law. A true-life example is the manner in which Southerners, even Southern governors, adhered to the social rule that blacks and whites should not go to school together after the passage of the Brown decisions and the subsequent deployment of the National Guard.
The same defiance of the law in favor of supporting social rules is ever present in To Kill a Mockingbird. The plot of the movie hinges on the consequences stemming from Mayella Ewells violation of the stringent sexual code of the South. Mayella breaks the sexual code by being attracted to and, more importantly, coming on to a black man, Tom Robinson. Mayella knew that if the public learned of her actions, the community to which she and her family already only marginally belonged would ostracize her. When caught, the only way for her to avoid the shame that will surely envelop her and her family was to lie and accuse Tom of rape. Her father, Bob Ewell, either conceived of or condoned the rape accusation because he too feared the inevitable public chastisement. The Ewell family thus falsely accuses an innocent man and commits perjury simply because the rule that is most relevant to their lives is not the rule of law, but rather the social rules of their society. In short, to them it didnt matter that they were breaking the law because to break the social code of the time would bring about much harsher consequences.
Mayella and her father were able to perpetuate this fraud because they knew that the community, like them, would ignore the law and remain faithful to the Southern social code. Tom Robinsons trial is merely an extension of the Ewells fraud. From the very beginning the trial is a sham; no reasonable man who witnessed Atticus Finchs near-perfect defense could have believed beyond a reasonable doubt that Tom attempted to rape Mayella. The jury knew Tom was innocent, but under the social rules of the South, it was less of a sin to convict an innocent (black) man than to publicly believe a black mans story over a white mans. It is worthy of note that this is a society whose not too distant past outlawed blacks from ever testifying in court. Thus, even though the rule of law had changed, the practical effect remained the same because the social rules hadnt changed. From this we see that the law is lifeless unless supported by social rules. Therefore, the only way for the rule of law to reign supreme is for racist temperaments to be completely eradicated from our belief system.
Removing racist sentiments from our social beliefs is a daunting but necessary task, for the rule of law is only effective when it can be objective, and it can only be objective when a the minds and hearts of the community have been changed. Atticus actions are an example of a man who tried to change the minds of his society by refusing to accede to its racist rules. Atticus provided Tom with laudable representation in court, a task that ran contrary to the dominant social rules of the time, and hoped to obtain a just result on appeal. Even though he lost at the trial level, this approach allowed Atticus to retain his reputation as a just and reasonable man.
Reviews of Atticus legal strategy have criticized Atticus failure to do exactly what was needed to win, such as petitioning for a removal to federal court or filing a writ to challenge the all-white jury. Such critiques are mistaken, for Atticus knew the ultimate goal was not just to acquit Tom but rather to free the society from the racism that imprisoned all African-Americans. Atticus knew that the best way to change society was from within. Had Atticus chosen a more aggressive approach to the Robinson case, his society would have seen him as too radical and rejected both him and the beliefs he advocated. Atticus, as an outcast, would thus be unable to change society and, in turn, unable to create an effective and impartial justice system. Viewed from this perspective, Atticus strategy was not a legal misstep but rather an example of effective advocacy.
However wise Atticus tactics may have been, his actions would have been done in vain if he failed to change peoples attitudes. Through his conduct, Atticus prevents his children from adopting the racist beliefs of their society. This is exemplified by an exchange between Jem and Tom Robinsons son. Toms son approaches Jem, who is waiting in Atticus car as Atticus discusses Toms case with Mrs. Robinson inside her house. The two boys lock eyes, and Jem gently raises his hand in a wave. This simple yet poetic gesture communicates Jems realization that he and Toms son are alike, are equals. This realization is clearly influenced by Atticus representation of Tom as well as by Atticus continual exhortation to "not judge a man until you have walked a day in his shoes."
Atticus was not only able to prevent his children from assenting to the racist social code, but he was also able to change the beliefs of Maycombs sheriff. At the beginning of the film, the sheriff is a willing player in the racist system. He accepts Bob Ewells story of rape without hesitation, fails to investigate the crime, and fails to put a stop to the subsequent trial. In contrast, the sheriff at the end of the film has realized the injustice that was done to Tom, as well as the injustice of the entire social structure, as shown by his refusal to prosecute Boo Radley for Bob Ewells murder. The sheriff tells Atticus, "An innocent man is dead, and the man responsible for his death now is lying under a tree with a knife in his side." His rejection of the racist system wouldnt have occurred if not for Atticus willingness to break the stringent social code of the south by defending Tom.
The true beauty of To Kill a Mockingbird lies in Atticus soft-spoken model of advocacy. By working within the society rather than against it, Atticus is able to change the hearts and minds of his children, the sheriff, and possibly countless others within the community. His seemingly innocuous actions actually serve as a catalyst for changing the entire social code of the South, for true social change occurs one person at a time. Atticus did what he could to rid his society of racism because he knew that the rule of law could be truly impartial and just only after a society had been completely stripped of racism.
Posted February 21, 2000
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