The Trial of Atticus

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the 48th anniversary of the film based on the novel, featuring an Academy Award-winning performance by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. If you ask a lawyer to name his or her all-time favorite novel, the odds are overwhelming that he or she will quickly reply, "To Kill a Mockingbird." And if you ask that same lawyer to name his or her all-time favorite movie, you will get the same response. Indeed, many lawyers of my generation (myself included) will tell you that they became a lawyer because they were inspired by Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch.

To give you some idea how much To Kill a Mockingbird means to me, I have a beagle. His name? Atticus. (I also have a cat named Boo Radley, but that is another story.)

But it is not only lawyers who revere Atticus Finch. In 2003, the American Film Institute surveyed moviegoers and asked them to name the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. The winner? It wasn't even close. Atticus Finch.

Now, you would think that the 50th anniversary of the publication of this great novel would be a time to celebrate Atticus Finch. After all, we need heroes, now more than ever.

But believe it or not, there are a growing number of so-called legal scholars and intellectuals who are stepping forward not to praise Atticus, but to bury him.

In fact, Atticus is now on trial. And in my opinion, the trial itself is as big an injustice as the conviction of Tom Robinson.

The Aug. 10, 2009, edition of The New Yorker features an article titled, "The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the Limits of Southern Liberalism." The article is authored by Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Outliers and The Tipping Point.

The theme of Gladwell's article is one that is sure to offend many American lawyers, and it certainly did me. In case you haven't read it, buckle your seatbelts. Gladwell's theme is that Atticus Finch is no hero. In fact, Gladwell tries to make the case that Finch was a segregationist, a sexist and a co-conspirator in obstruction of justice.

First, Gladwell argues that Atticus was, at best, a "Jim Crow liberal," who really wasn't ready to take on racism in Maycomb, Ala. Gladwell's "evidence" in support of this point is Atticus' reaction to the unjust jury verdict finding his innocent client, Tom Robinson, guilty. Gladwell writes:

If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn't. He's not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He's (Alabama Governor) Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.

Gladwell goes on to cite what may be the most famous passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, wherein Atticus defends the jury to his daughter, Scout. Atticus tells Scout, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

He also cites Atticus's observation to Scout that the white folks on the jury were suffering from a "sickness," specifically the inability to see a black man as a real person.

Gladwell argues that Atticus really did not want to change the law, but rather the "hearts and minds" of the white folks in Maycomb. Gladwell makes it sounds like these are mutually exclusive alternatives.

Maybe Gladwell would have found Atticus a more heroic figure if he had responded to the verdict by pulling out a gun and shooting all the jurors. (I have some real concern that this might be the ending in To Kill a Mockingbird II: The Sequel, starring Slyvester Stallone as Atticus, which, for God's sake, I hope we never see.)

In Gladwell's view, Atticus is actually sort of a polite version of George Wallace in a seersucker suit, standing in the courtroom rather than at the schoolhouse door.

But Gladwell doesn't stop here. Not only is Atticus a segregationist, he is also sexist. Gladwell's evidence on Count II is that in his defense of Tom Robinson, Atticus attacks the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell. Gladwell says that in doing so, Atticus is using the classic "she wanted it" defense that sexist lawyers have used for years in defending clients charged with rape.

Gladwell says this would be bad enough, but that Atticus is even more shameless, in that he portrays Tom Robinson as "a good Negro," while portraying Mayella Ewell as white trash, implying she had been the victim of incest by her father.

Finally, Gladwell argues that at the end of the novel, Atticus is a co-conspirator in obstruction of justice. He notes that after Boo Radley kills Bob Ewell in defense of Scout and Jim, Sheriff Tate and Atticus agree to lie about what happened and come up with the story that Bob Ewell fell on his knife.

Gladwell says that in so doing, Atticus flunks a "moral test," as he and the Sheriff "decide to obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor (Boo) the burden of angel food cake." Thus, Gladwell argues that Atticus is no better than the jurors who convicted Tom Robinson:

Atticus Finch is faced with jurors who have one set of standards for white people like the Ewells and another set for black folk like Tom Robinson. His response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell.

Excuse me, but Boo Radley was "a respectable white?" I have to wonder whether Malcolm Gladwell actually read the novel.

Unfortunately, Gladwell is not alone in his indictment of Atticus. Northwestern University Law School Professor Steven Luvet has written that his defense of Tom Robinson, Atticus showed a "willingness to rely upon cruel stereotypes" and played the "gender card." Luvet argues that these tactics "should be criticized, not applauded."
And in a similar vein, noted legal ethicist Monroe Freedman has written that while Atticus Finch was a "gentleman," he was no role model since he worked within a system of "institutionalized racism and sexism."

So there you have it, folks. The man so many of us have revered for nearly a half century is no hero, or at least that's the charge in the case of Gladwell, et al. v. Finch.

Well, the next thing you know, we will need to reexamine Mother Teresa. All she did for 45 years was minister to the poor, the sick, the orphaned and the dying in Calcutta. In so doing, she was just preserving the status quo, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.

And does anybody really think Elvis could sing? And how about Sinatra, or the Beatles, or Plácido Domingo? What a bunch of frauds!

Well, I have heard all the proof against Atticus, and to borrow a line from a great closing argument, for God's sake, I am ready to do my duty!

Here's my verdict: Atticus was, is, and will always be a hero.

Case closed.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.