“Gentlemen, a court is no better than each 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."
With these words attorney Atticus Finch ended his final arguments in defense of his client, Tom Robinson, in Harper Lee's classic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." The trial takes place in the 1930's in the middle of the Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Tom is a black man accused of raping a white woman. He is innocent. Atticus has proven his innocence through physical evidence and testimony. He has almost no chance of winning.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is usually referred to as a novel about racial injustice. Tom is a black man accused of a crime against a white woman in a time when men were often lynched. Atticus is an attorney fighting to get his client a fair trail from an all white jury that refuses to see Tom as one of their peers. Stories of criminal injustice are common, but when Atticus charges the jury to, "do your duty," he is appealing to something deeper. He and the novel are asking us to rise up to the challenge of being good citizens and doing what is right. The jury members have sworn to base their decision solely on the evidence presented in court. To do their duty they are going to have to overcome their own fears and personal prejudices. They are under enormous peer pressure from one another and the community. Freeing Tom involves personal risk and would require great personal courage.
Doing your duty or doing what is right is one of the central themes of "To Kill a Mockingbird." In one part of the novel a mad dog is loose in the neighborhood where Atticus and his children live. With all the other neighbors hiding inside Atticus steps forward and kills the dog with a single shot to the head. It had to be done. Atticus is not a hunter, has poor eyesight, and by his own admission had not shot a gun in thirty years. He hesitates, but when no one else will step forward he does his duty to protect his family and neighbors.
We see Atticus and what happens though the eyes of his daughter Scout. She and her brother are being raised in a single parent family. The novel is a coming of age story for her as she and her brother watch how their father handles himself as a man, father, and citizen. They learn that the world they live in is a dangerous place where people are not all good and life is not always fair. By the end of the novel they have learned that though good may not always win, there is a right and wrong in this world that does not change.
"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird," Atticus tells his children after getting them their first airguns. To Atticus killing a beautiful bird that doesn't do anything but make music and bring us pleasure would be wrong. Its the sort of wrong that appeals to a higher sense of duty. One Atticus teaches his children through an example of conscience, responsibility, and the courage to do what is right.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is the Iredell County Public Library "Big Read" selection. The goal of "Big Read" is to have everyone in the county read the same book and then participate in discussions and activities about the book’s themes and meaning. Imagine being able to read a book and then have people around you where ever you go that have read the same book and can discuss it with you. The Kickoff in Statesville is this Sunday from 3 to 4:30 pm at the Shearer Hall on the campus of Mitchell Community College. The Mooresville Kickoff will be at the Charles Mack Citizen Center from 3 to 4:30 pm while the Harmony library will hold its kickoff at the same time at the Harmony Community Center.
During the kickoffs the Mitchell Community College essay and poetry contest winners will be announced. The Mitchell Community College "Race in America Oral History Project" booklets will also be available. "Big Read" is a month long celebration and a special calendar of events is available at the Iredell County Public Library or on our website at www.iredell.lib.nc.us.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Finch, ‘Mockingbird’ set moral compass” on Jan. 28, 2009