Defense Lawyer Atticus Finch Turns Racist in Old Age
|For the defense: Atticus Finch|
The plot of Mockingbird is one of the most well-known and revered in American literature. Criminal defense lawyer Atticus Finch, portrayed by Gregory Peck in the '62 screen adaptation, is appointed by a local judge in fictional Maycomb, Alabama to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Yes, the assignment is unpopular in the small county-seat town and Finch's representation, while heroic, is ultimately unsuccessful, leading to a jury conviction. In the novel, Mr. Finch gives a voice to the court-appointed criminal defense lawyers creed:
Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand, it's knowing you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win but sometimes you do.Now, what are we to make of this iconic literary figure who, in the sequel, now age 72, exhibits the tendencies of a physically aging bigot, denouncing desegregation efforts and asking his now-adult daughter whether she really wants African Americans to "overrun" the local schools.
This surprise plot twist is just the latest example of America's inescapable racism. But a bigoted Atticus Finch? It just does not ring true, and tears at the soul of indigent criminal representation.
Now what will high school literature teachers assign their students to read? They will have to resort to Gideon's Trumpet to take up the mantel of court appointed counsel.
Interestingly, Atticus' fall from grace was predicted in the unconventional critique leveled nearly a quarter century ago by now-deceased Hofstra University Law Professor Monroe Freedman in the National Law Journal, a dry trade publication we read regularly here at the Law Blogger. Professor Freedman criticized Finch for not signing-up for the case, for groaning when assigned the case by the county judge, and for not championing the rights African Americans to sit anywhere they wish in the public courtroom where Tom Robinson's trial took place.
With last month's events in South Carolina in the foreground, and the ubiquitous friction inherent in the interactions between law enforcement and minorities as a backdrop, the long-anticipated release of Harper Lee's sequel could not come at a worse time. But really, when is there a good time for racism in America?
The author actually completed the so-called sequel to Mockingbird first, in 1957; three years prior to the publication of Mockingbird. Perhaps the aging bigoted Mr. Finch was too much to take, and Ms. Lee's publicist prevailed upon her to produce and publish what has become America's classic morality tale.
Well, over here at the Law Blogger, we will continue to take up the cause of those who cannot afford retained counsel and, in each case, we will do our best as did Mr. Finch in his prime. Unlike the arthritic Atticus Finch, however, we will keep our personal views to our selves.