The book starts off in a small town in Maycomb county Alabama in the 1930’s. The main character is Jean Finch who is 7 years old and grows up with her dad Atticus and her brother Jem. Jean also goes by the nickname Scout. Throughout the book Scout talks about her experiences in a traditional and segregated community. Scout learns about women’s role in society, bullies at school, institutional racism, and mysterious neighbors with hidden secrets. The main event I want to discuss is the court case that underlined the oppression of black people in the justice system and one mans values of equality.
In the beginning of the book Atticus tries to prepare his children for the challenges lawyers’ face that can test their beliefs and invoke criticism. The readers eventually find out about a court case involving Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Once Atticus found out he was chosen to defend Tom he tried to keep it from his children for as long as he could. Atticus wanted to protect his children from any backlash for defending a black man.
Atticus is very protective of his children and vise versa. There is one scene in the book when Atticus spends most of the night with Tom in jail with fears that Tom might be harassed or even killed for the crime he was arrested for. While the KKK and white supremacy was practiced by some society members, Atticus knew he had to protect his client. While Atticus was keeping watch, a group of men gathered around his cell threatening Atticus to leave so they could fulfill their own interpretation of justice for Tom.
While Atticus was refusing to go and trying to talk sense to the crowd Scout, Jem and their friend Dill ran to Atticus’s aid. The crowd became restless and insisted the kids go home. Scout bravely raised her voice and spoke to this group of men that was pure honesty. Some of these men she had known her whole life and went to school with some of their children. In a small town that is so closely tied together and open about peoples’ lives in this community, Scout speech made this personal.
Her speech entailed calling out people from the crowd and giving examples of how Atticus helped them in the past or vise versa. Her speech helped the angry mob realize how all our lives are intertwined and to ask themselves who they are really mad at? The more Scout talked the more impact she was making to ultimately defend her dad. The mob was convinced that any black person accused of a crime is guilty before they even go to trial. I think there was a small realization that the mob was causing the injustice and no one else.
With that, the group of men dispersed and went home. This was only the beginning of the hardship that the Finch and Robinson family had to endure.
When the case finally went to trial, the whole town attended. The black people sat upstairs on the balcony and the white people took seats on the first floor as well as on the jury. The events in this case are tragic. Atticus had no support and no advantages but Atticus stood by what was right and stayed true to the facts.
Atticus wasn’t afraid to expose inconsistencies and to ask the hard questions while being professional. The two main witnesses that Atticus questioned were Mayella Ewell and her father Bob Ewell. First he questioned Bob Ewell, who had seven children, had no money and had a drinking problem and a history of being abusive. These were the qualities of Bob that Atticus made apparent to everyone to the jury because Mayella said she was beaten and raped.
Atticus questioned Bob if he could read and write, which he could, then Atticus had Bob write his name on a piece of paper. This evidence showed that he was right handed and Mayella had a bruise on her left cheek, proving that Bob may have been the one who hit her.
Atticus then questions Mayella on the stand. She explains that she invited Tom in for some help she needed in the house and that’s when he attacked her. Then her dad catches him while he’s looking through the window and yells. That’s when Tom ran out of the house and sprinted down their driveway.
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up peoples gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Then Tom Robinson took the stand. Tom explained that he was a hard worker and had a wife and children who he loved. Tom was also involved in a machinery accident and lost all the muscle in his right arm, so he only had use in his left arm. The evidence showed that Mayella had two hands marks around her neck, so Tom must not have been the one to attack her.
Tom continued his story and explained Mayella was trying to kiss him and hug him while in her house. Tom said he had to leave and told her to stop but Mayella blocked the door so he couldn’t leave and that’s when her dad saw them through the window. Atticus asked Tom, if he didn’t do anything wrong then why did he run away. Tom said “Mr. Finch, if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.”
Over the years before the trial, Tom always passed by Mayella’s house on his way to work. Almost all the times he passed by she always had something she needed help with. Whether it was chopping wood, landscaping or hauling away something she couldn’t lift. The prosecution, Mr. Gilmer questioned Tom about always helping her and he never charged her for his work. Hinting that Tom had his eye on her for a long time and liked her enough to not charge her anything.
Speculating that Tom had ulterior motives for helping her but he actually did it out of her goodness of his heart. Tom said “Yes, suh. I felt sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em.” After Tom said that the whole mood in the courthouse changed and Mr. Gilmer was screaming “You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?” outrageous that a black man could have sympathy for a white woman.
Towards the end of the trial Atticus gave his closing argument. The biggest message he ended with is that all men are created equal and where this principle should be upheld the most is in our courts.
Tom was found guilty.
It is amazing to think the circumstances of this case. A white woman who was poorly taken care of and didn’t have anyone close to her or any friends, found a friend in Tom. He was polite to her and helped her when no one else was there. Mayella sent the only person she cared about to jail and lied that he did this egregious act, most likely to haunt her for the rest of her life. The whole town knew Bob’s behavior towards his children who he neglected but it was unfathomable to find a black man not guilty. All of the facts pointed to Tom’s innocents but instead the court ruled against him. Jem said “How could they do it, how could they?” Atticus said “I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it-seems that only children weep. Good night.”
Tom later committed suicide in jail and left behind his wife and his children alone.
The Finch family tried to move on but some folks especially Bob Ewell still had a grudge against Atticus since he exposed him for the drunk and abusive person he was. He even tried to kill Atticus’s children, but because of a helpful and unsuspecting neighbor, their lives were saved. During the struggle, Bob Ewell was killed by Boo Radley who saved Scout and Jem. This whole time the scary neighbor next door looked after these kids but never ventured outside. He always stayed indoors.
Now there is a lot more details and stories about the town and the Finch family that covers the majority of the book but I really wanted to discuss the court case above all. I watched this movie as a kid but reading it as an adult changed my perception of the story. I caught on to certain parts of the book I didn’t fully understand when I was younger such as segregation. I understood what it was but reading about the author’s perspective in the 1930’s is powerful. How the author describes this small town very much where she grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. The book is fictional but there was a similar court case that happened around the same time as this book took place. Visit The Smithsonian to learn more.