Atticus Finch: A Hero Who Lost The Battle

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, Weekend Edition essayist Diane Roberts pays tribute to a character who is one of her heroes.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Atticus Finch, the hero of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and its most famous character, has inspired many fans of the novel, including WEEKEND EDITION essayist Diane Roberts.

DIANE ROBERTS: My heroes have always been lawyers - John Adams, who defended the Boston Massacre redcoats; Sarah Weddington, who argued the Jane Roe case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court; Thurgood Marshall of Brown vs. the Board of Education fame; and Atticus Finch, of course. He's one of the most important lawyers of the last 50 years - even if he is only a character in a novel.

Now, Harper Lee didn't invent the type. Earl Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason was wowing juries with his razor-like brain about 30 years before "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published. William Faulkner's Gavin Stevens, the premiere legal theorist of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi also predates Atticus.

But Scout Finch's daddy is an aristocrat, a great orator, a barrister saint. The Alabama State Bar even erected a monument to him in Monroeville, Harper Lee's hometown.

Gregory Peck, linen suited, super handsome, uber charming, Gregory Peck played him in the movie. No lawyer ever had better. It doesn't matter that he's not a real person. Atticus Finch influenced the intrepid, if more flawed, protagonist in the novels of John Grisham and Scott Turow.

Generations of lawyers cite him as the reason for taking up the profession. Civil rights lawyer Morris Dee said he was inspired by Atticus Finch's brave defense of Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. And I suspect Atticus Finch taught that eloquent Harvard-trained lawyer currently occupying the Oval Office something about empathy.

Like when he says, you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Much as I admire Atticus Finch, however, there are limits to his virtue. He's a good progressive on race, but when it comes to the pitiful Mayella Ewell, Tom Robinson's alleged victim, he treats her like poor white trash, the lowest of the low. And remember, Atticus loses Tom's case - hardly surprising, I guess, with an all-white jury in the Jim Crow South.

The (unintelligible) has been served but Tom is shot and killed. And it's hard to tell if anything in Macomb, Alabama has really changed. But Atticus is still my hero, if only because he does that hardest thing: defying his society, risking his reputation, all in the name of justice.

HANSEN: Diane Roberts teaches English at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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