Thursday, December 8, 2011

"To Kill A Mockingbird:" Longing for Justice

I wiped tears from my eyes and stifled the lump in my throat this morning as I read to my small class of students  Chapter 20 of Harper Lee's masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird.

My students, most of them recent immigrants, sat beside me as I read defense lawyer Atticus Finch's closing arguments to the all-white all-male jury who we know from the novel's start will convict Tom Robinson, a black man, of raping a white neighbor. It's a crime that never even happened and we know nevertheless that at the trial's end, Tom Robinson will be sentenced to death. Every time I read this book or watch the movie, I hope somehow, this time, the jury will set Tom Robinson free. I long for a world in which justice is fair and where the cruelty humans inflict on one another has disappeared.

As I read, I wondered if Lee's writing was traveling across time and circumstance and culture and into my students' hearts. "

That was strong," said one student when I finished. "Powerful," said another. And then we all were quiet for a minute or so.

Please read this out loud to yourself.

"The witnesses for the state, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption-the evil assumption-that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber.
Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson's skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women-black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire....

One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit. Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us.

There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious-because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. 

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe-some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others-some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men. 

But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal - there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system-that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. 

In the name of God, do your duty."


  1. My favorite book in middle school, Allison. Thanks for highlighting it. May have to read it again. Atticus, Scout, Boo Radley . . .

  2. I LOVE that book. I haven't taught it in years, but when I used to show the movie to my classes, I'd get all teary-eyed when Scout meets Boo Radley at the end. That scene is done so well.

  3. I think it is one of those books that improves with (my) age. It is just so true and so powerful.