Monday, April 2, 2012

Trayvon Martin Case: What Would Atticus Finch Do?

In the classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch represents Tom Robinson, an African American accused of raping a white woman, in a criminal trial. The trial takes place in Maycomb, Alabama - a town essentially ruled by an angry white, racist mob. Despite threats from the townspeople, Atticus Finch agrees to represent Tom and at one point faces down the town mob, which is intent on lynching Mr. Robinson. As the trial unfolds, it becomes obvious that Tom Robinson is innocent, but the all-white jury still convicts him.

Throughout the novel and the trial of Tom Robinson, Atticus takes time and great effort to explain to his children, Scout and Jem, that they should avoid prejudice, hatred and a rush to judgment. He scolds Scout for trying to solve disagreements with physical violence and provides the ultimate example when he himself is challenged to fight, but walks away. Atticus tries to teach his children that they have to try to understand people and their motives before judging. He famously tells Scout, "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." 

Now, it would be easy to assume that, because Atticus represented a black man in the deep South, that he would side with the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson today to decry the kind of racism Tom Robinson faced in Maycomb and Trayvon Martin allegedly faced in Sanford. But, it is important to also note that Atticus took time to warn the children against judging Boo Radley, a white recluse and town weirdo living in Maycomb. Does Finch's message go beyond race?

I have always admired the character of Atticus Finch because he stands for restraint, equality, patience, understanding, civility, due process and the rule of law. I admit this is speculation, but I don't believe Atticus represented Tom Robinson because he was black; but because it was the right thing to do. I can't speculate what Atticus Finch would do or say in the Trayvon Martin case, but I think it's safe to say he wouldn't side with the group/mob now seeking to capture George Zimmerman, escalate the situation, convict Zimmerman without all the facts, judge him without due process and put a bounty on his head. Atticus Finch, I think, would advocate restraint, civility, due process and the rule of law. And, if necessary, I think he would stare down the angry mob that is seeking to destroy George Zimmerman.

The case of Trayvon Benjamin Martin is a terrible tragedy. A young boy - a son, sibling and friend - was prematurely killed. A man, George Zimmerman, whether guilty of manslaughter, murder or anything else, took the boy's life and will have to live with that the rest of his life. A community was rocked over the incident and a Nation is now partially divided over it. One or both of them resorted to violence to solve a disagreement. We simply don't know what happened and why, but we would do well to remember the words of Atticus Finch when thinking about Trayvon and Zimmerman: "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." This leads to few clear answers but at least it ensures that we proceed with fairness, understanding and dignity.

Where are the Atticus Finches of yesteryear?