Today in 1960: To Kill a Mockingbird is first published

July 11, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryTypically, this segment covers historical events that had a direct impact on the course of the U.S. legal system, such as Supreme Court decisions and the enactment of new laws.

The subject of today’s post –a fiction novel’s first publication – is not such an event.  Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that the novel has made an impact in the legal world.

That novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was first published 54 years ago today.  If you’re not one of the millions who have read the book, Mockingbird is story set in 1930s about prejudice and racism and their effects in society.

Despite the serious issues addressed in the novel, the most significant impact on the legal profession came not from themes in the story at large, but rather from one of its central characters: Atticus Finch.

Finch, the father of Mockingbird’s narrator and primary protagonist, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is an attorney who is well-known within the town of Maycomb, Alabama, the setting of the story.  Finch is appointed by the presiding judge of a forthcoming criminal trial to represent the defendant Tom Robinson, a black man who has been charged with the rape of a white woman.

Finch agrees to represent Robinson, much to the chagrin of the other members of the town.  And represent Robinson, he does: Finch makes a very compelling case that the accusations are fabricated.  The trial reveals that the alleged victim, Mayella Ewell, had made unsuccessful sexual advances toward Robinson, and her father Bob had discovered this and had beat her in response.

Despite the strong evidence in Robinson’s favor, the jury convicts him – something that does not come as a complete surprise to Finch since, at the outset his representation, was well aware of the strong racial prejudices that Robinson would face in the town’s criminal justice system.  As evidenced by his words to his daughter Jem in seeming contemplation of his approaching representation of Robinson, Finch knew that his chances for success in acquitting Robinson were slim:

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. [emphasis added]

And Finch truly put all of his effort into Robinson’s representation, uncovering the truth behind the allegations that would have likely led to acquittal, had it not been for the racial prejudices that ruled the Deep South in the 1930s.

Because of his actions in the book, Finch has been held up as the epitome of a model lawyer, who fights for justice despite bleak odds, strong disproval from the public, and no return of monetary compensation.  He fights for justice simply because it is the right thing to do.

Attorneys of all shades – even a wide variety of prominent ones – have named Atticus Finch as their inspiration to entering the legal profession, and he continues to provide motivation to new law students today.

Even though the 54-year-old To Kill a Mockingbird is widely acclaimed for being a great literary work, the book provided something special for attorneys: a shining role model of ethics, integrity, and professionalism.

Atticus Finch may be the closest thing to a hero that lawyers will ever get.