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For nearly all of us, To Kill a Mockingird served as one of the major milestones on our paths to heeding the call to serve the rule of law. For me, Harper Lee’s iconic novel shaped my journey from a slightly different perspective. Legal professionals routinely praise the inspirational bravery and integrity of the central character, lawyer Atticus Finch. But two other pieces of the story were more formative for me.
When prompted, most can remember that tension-filled scene in which unarmed Atticus Finch tried to face down a mob intent on lynching his client, Tom Robinson, an African- American accused of raping a white woman in racist America. Atticus doesn’t make much progress until his daughter, Scout, and two other children show up. Scout greets members of the mob by name, takes away their anonymity within the mob, and shames them with her innocence. The mob mentality is broken not by force, authority, or persuasion as in the classic Hollywood western but by individual humanity. Everybody lives to witness Atticus’s brilliant and spirited defense of Mr. Robinson in court.
I find that far too many people forget the second piece of the story that so impacted me. Despite Atticus’s utterly convincing defense, Mr. Robinson was found guilty in a clear miscarriage of justice. Given the time, Tom Robinson was, in all likelihood, executed a short time later. And so I was always left to wonder, what was the point of it all? It seemed to me that the community just made a lynching look like a legitimate legal proceeding.