David and Eliath

David and Eliath
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Friday, March 25, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch's Speech of Equality

Harper Lee's renowned novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, depicts the racial injustices of the deep south during the early 20th century.  Protagonist Atticus Finch, a knowledgeable attorney, is faced with the daunting task of defending a convicted black man in a hostile court filled with bigoted Alabamians.  Defendant Tom Robinson is charged with the rape of Mayella Ewell, a young white woman.  It quickly becomes apparent that despite the fact that Robinson is clearly innocent, the jury has no intention of acquitting a black man charged with raping a white women.  Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, Atticus delivers a profoundly illuminating speech:

Gentlemen, I shall be brief, but I would like to use my remaining time with you to remind you that the case of Mayella Ewell vs. Tom Robinson is not a difficult one. To begin with, this case should have never come to trial. The state of Alabama has not produced one iota of medical evidence that shows that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place. This case is as simple as black and white. It requires no minute sifting of complicated facts, but it does require you to be sure beyond all reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant.
Miss Ewell did something that in our society is unspeakable: she is white, and she tempted a Negro. The defendant is not guilty, but someone in this courtroom is. I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the state, but my pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man's life at stake. She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted. The state of Alabama has relied solely upon the testimony of two witnesses who's evidence has not only been called into serious question, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant.
I need not remind you of their appearance and conduct on the stand. They have presented themselves in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted. They were confident that you, the jury, would go along with the evil assumption that all Negro's lie, and are immoral. Mr. Robinson is accused of rape, when it was she who made the advances on him. He put his word against two white people's, and now he is on trial for no apparent reason- except that he is black.
Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the government is fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use that phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. We know that all men are not created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe. Some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they are born with it, some men have more money than others, and some people are more gifted than others.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal. An institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the ignorant man the equal of any president, and the stupid man the equal of Einstein. That institution is the court. But a court is only as sound as its jury, and the 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 the defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, gentlemen, believe Tom Robinson.


Perhaps most compelling, Atticus Finch elucidates the importance of the judicial system.  Finch points out the irony in Thomas Jefferson's affirmation; equality does not naturally exist: the diversity amongst humans undermines the notion of equality.  Because of this, the importance of the judicial system becomes exacerbated, as the judiciary is the only system that, for a brief time, can truly create equality.  Harper, through Finch, also notes the hypocrisy of America: the country dubbed, "the land of the free", does not even have a legitimately fair judicial system.  Finch then makes a poignant plea to the jury.  By stating, "But a court is only as sound as its jury, and the jury is only as sound as the men who make it up", Finch proves that equality is in actuality determinate of the convictions and biases of the people, and that it is the responsibility of the common man to uphold the country's epithet.

Ironically, Finch mentions that this case is "as simple as black and white".  The literal meaning behind Finch's words convey the belief that the Robinson is clearly innocent.  Also, Finch purposely mentions the colors black and white to indicate that racial biases are a serious problem in America.  Symbolically, the use of the two opposing colors represents the opposing beliefs regarding equality, akin to a yin-yang.  While the upholders of equality (like Finch) believe that everybody is entitled to the rights of a freeborn citizen, the Alabamian commoners believe that freedom is inherited based on race.

2 comments:

  1. So I've never read this book, but from this speech it sounds really interesting! After reading this speech, it seems impossible that people could ever convict the man, but of course you have to take into consideration the fact that at the time almost all of the people were racist. It's interesting to try to take their perspective, even if just for a second.

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  2. An excellent novel (and also film in this case with a beautiful score composed by Elmer Bernstein). Atticus' speech is certainly a famous piece of fictional rhetoric. Sadly, it illustrates that no matter how right and persuasive you are, some people will not be convinced to see the truth.

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