Tuesday, October 9, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird: Crime and Justice

While the first half of To Kill a Mockingbird concerns the attempts of Scout, Jem, and Dill to get to the bottom of the Boo Radley mystery, the second half centers around the trial of Tom Robinson. One of the most quoted passages in the book is part of Atticus's closing remarks, about the sanctity of the court itself:

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe[...]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.[...]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.

(This is an echo of the real-life judge, James E. Horton, who presided over the retrial of the Scottsboro Boys: "Now, gentlemen, under our law when it comes to the courts we know neither native nor alien, we know neither Jew nor Gentile, we know neither black nor white....It is our duty to mete out even-handed justice." [quoted in To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries by Claudia Durst Johnson])

Do you agree with this assessment, either within the context of the book (the norms of violent racial prejudice) or in real life? Can the fact that Tom Robinson is found guilty even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary be explained by "Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution"? Is Atticus's optimism (indeed, is Atticus himself) even believable?

Think about other cases that have reflected the toxic side of American ethnic relations, like, recently, the Duke lacrosse players (three white college students accused of sexually assaulting a black stripper at a party; the students were eventually determined to be innocent but many members of the university community and the general public were all too willing to believe that the men were guilty) and the Jena 6 (six black Louisiana teenagers charged with attempted murder after a white classmate was beaten up at school; the first to be tried was initially convicted by an all-white jury selected from an all-white jury pool, but the case is far from over). What connections to our world of criminal justice do you see in TKAM?

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