Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 when the civil rights movement was making inroads into the American consciousness, is set in the South in the 1930s, at the height of the racially discriminatory Jim Crow era. Though some critics have questioned Lee’s skills as a writer, decried the novel’s sentimentality and challenged its racial attitudes, there’s no denying her book’s enduring cultural importance.
Southern blacks in the Jim Crow era were seldom allowed to vote or serve on juries; schools, restaurants and public transportation were segregated; and racist codes of conduct kept blacks in an inferior social position. Interracial romance was taboo, and when an affair between a white woman and a black man was discovered, the woman or a relative often accused her lover of rape, a capital crime in most states. During this period some 3,500 black Americans were lynched, about one quarter accused of rape or attempted rape.
In the mid-1930s Alabama of To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, a black man, is on trial for his life. He stands accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a poor white woman. The “evidence” against Tom isn’t credible, but given the time and place, the all-white jury will almost inevitably find him guilty. Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, says the Jim Crow “code” barring sex between white women and black men is so strong that Mayella, who had seduced Tom, has every reason to lie. Atticus tells the jury, “She has...broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst.”
The century following the Civil War was the era of Jim Crow, and under its “separate but equal” doctrine, established in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, public institutions could be segregated as long as “equal” accommodations were provided for blacks and whites. The doctrine was unsound in theory and practice: Even when the separate accommodations were equally funded (and they seldom were), the mere fact of segregation itself created undeniable inequalities.
In 1951, 13 black parents sued the board of education of Topeka, Kansas, for preventing their children from enrolling in the nearest neighborhood schools, which were open to whites only. The parents argued that “separate but equal” was a fiction and that segregation thus violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause requiring states to provide equal protection under the law to everyone. Their case—named Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka after Oliver Brown, one of the parents—reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953. Thurgood Marshall represented the plaintiffs. In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the court’s unanimous decision, concluding that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The Jim Crow laws enforced extreme discrimination against black Americans, mainly in the South. Black Southerners were little represented in their state and national governments and, if accused of a crime, were also denied the basic right of a trial before a jury of their actual peers. To make matters worse, racist social attitudes held that blacks were untrustworthy and that black men were prone to sexual violence.
Enter a black truck driver named Willie McGee, who in 1945 was accused of raping Willette Hawkins, a white woman, in Laurel, Mississippi. She denied McGee’s claims that their affair was consensual, and though there was almost no evidence except their own testimonies, it took an all-white jury less than three minutes to find McGee guilty. The case drew attention to the many miscarriages of justice committed in the name of Jim Crow, and outside the jury box disagreement predominated as to whether McGee was a sexual aggressor or the unjust laws’ victim. McGee had clearly been denied his Constitutional right to a fair trial, and the death sentence, then applied almost exclusively to black defendants in Mississippi rape cases, was viewed as a disproportionately harsh punishment.
In 1945 an all-white jury found Willie McGee, a black man, guilty of raping a white woman and sentenced him to death by electrocution. The primary evidence was the alleged victim’s testimony, even though McGee claimed he and the woman were longtime lovers. McGee would seem to be a perfect match for NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall and his team, who were making headlines fighting racial discrimination in American courtrooms, yet even as the case began to attract international attention, the NAACP all but ignored it. The reason: The Communist-affiliated Civil Rights Congress was funding McGee’s defense, and the NAACP generally refused to cooperate with it. Even though the two organizations had similar goals, the CRC’s political sympathies were too far to the left, so the NAACP declined to participate.
Marshall nonetheless affected McGee’s case when, in 1947, he won a unanimous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in Patton v. Mississippi, which found strong evidence that blacks were “systematically excluded” from the state’s jury rolls, a situation the Court had repeatedly deemed unconstitutional. In 1948 the Mississippi Supreme Court cited Patton when it overturned McGee’s second conviction. McGee was soon reindicted, however, and convicted a third, fatal time.
In more than two decades as the NAACP’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won 29. None was more important than Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools. The case was later applied to segregation in all public settings, marking a turning point for the civil rights movement and a career milestone for Marshall, who, in 1967, became the Supreme Court’s first black justice.
But Brown didn’t mean black Americans would be admitted immediately or in representative numbers into classrooms formerly barred to them. Centuries of enslavement and discrimination were less easily overturned than a few laws, and de facto segregation continued, especially in higher education. Attempting to diversify their student bodies, schools soon began positively considering race when making admissions decisions, a policy known as affirmative action. Marshall sat on the Supreme Court in 1978 as it decided how far schools could go to create the desired diversity. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Marshall sided with the majority, ruling that schools could not use a “racial quota system” but that race could be one factor among many in evaluating applications.
Johnnie Cochran became interested in law after learning about Thurgood Marshall, the successful civil rights attorney and the first African American justice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But while Marshall is remembered for his lifelong effort to defend and improve the lives of all black Americans, Cochran is recalled mainly for defending the celebrities O.J. Simpson, Sean Combs, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Michael Jackson. Nonetheless, Cochran did represent many less-wealthy clients and expended considerable time and effort battling police brutality.
In 1991 Los Angeles police were videotaped beating a black motorist, Rodney King, after a high-speed chase. A year later all of the officers involved were acquitted, and L.A.’s South Central neighborhood erupted in violence. Cochran represented Reginald Denny, a white man who had been beaten during the riots. In an interesting twist, Cochran sued the Los Angeles Police Department on Denny’s behalf, claiming that the police force had ignored the predominantly black neighborhoods in which the riots occurred and where Denny was beaten—and that they had thus violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. In this way, Cochran attempted to use the courts to rectify social injustice, as Marshall had done decades earlier. The case was dismissed.
Atticus Finch, the defense attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird’s interracial rape trial, establishes that the bruises suffered by the alleged victim, Mayella Ewell, were all on the right side of her face, suggesting that a left-handed man had attacked her. Later Atticus has the accused rapist, Tom Robinson, stand before the court and demonstrate that his left arm, crippled in an accident and “fully 12 inches shorter than the right,” is largely unusable. The 1962 film version of this scene is even more dramatic: Atticus tosses a glass to Tom, who cannot help but catch it with his unmaimed right hand. Presumably some other man—Atticus unsubtly suggests Mayella’s father—attacked the young woman.
Johnnie Cochran borrowed from Atticus’s playbook in 1995, when he represented O.J. Simpson, the African American ex–football player accused of murdering his ex-wife and a male friend, both white. Important to the prosecution’s case was a pair of bloody gloves containing DNA from the defendant and both victims. Cochran let Simpson struggle and fail to put on the gloves in front of the jury. During his closing arguments, Cochran memorably exhorted, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
The hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, endangers himself and his family when he agrees to defend the black Tom Robinson against a local white woman’s rape accusation. Atticus and his children confront a lynch mob out to impose its own justice, and the father of Tom’s alleged victim later attempts to hurt the Finch children. As Atticus explains to his daughter, had he not taken the case, “I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you…not to do something again.” In other words, honor requires one to do the right thing, no matter the consequences.
Thurgood Marshall began his career in the 1930s, when Harper Lee’s novel is set. A black attorney representing black defendants before unsympathetic, all-white juries, Marshall faced constant threats. Given the southern legal system, he considered a verdict that didn’t end in the death penalty a success for his clients. Marshall remains an inspirational figure for his willingness to champion justice in the face of danger and adversity. Though Atticus is just a fictional character, the same can be said of him. American lawyers routinely cite both as role models.