Writer Harper Lee died last Friday at age 89. But her classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, lives on. With more than 40 million copies sold, it’s never been out of print. Lee’s tale of racial injustice in the South had a major impact on contributor William Holston -- in particular, its central character.
Atticus Finch has been admired for decades as the ideal lawyer. He fought with courage and grace against the racist judicial system of Alabama for the underdog, a black man named Tom Robinson unjustly accused of rape. Tragically, he was ultimately unable to overcome the times, and Tom Robinson is convicted and shot while seeking escape.
I didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird until I was an adult, and after becoming a lawyer. His actions inspired me to be a more courageous advocate. I was particularly impressed by Atticus is willing to be the conscience of his community, to stand for justice when no one else will, to stand against the crowd of popular opinion.
Ironically, I thought about Atticus and Harper Lee the evening before her death. I got to see a real life Atticus Finch, Bryan Stevenson, a black lawyer from Alabama, speak about his book Just Mercy. In it, Stevenson describes his successful legal fight to free Walter McMillan from Alabama’s death row. He was wrongfully convicted of a murder which occurred in Ms. Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, a mere 88 miles from my hometown of Mobile.
The story reminded me just how much we continue to need Atticus Finch. Despite many changes in our country, we are still plagued with wrongfully convicted men and women, mass incarcerations, disparate incarceration of minorities and inaccessibility to competent lawyers.
I am inspired that I know lots of Atticus Finches right here in Dallas. For instance, Meghan Nylin. She recently successfully tried her first asylum case in immigration court for a political activist from the Congo. Or Melissa Weaver, who worked on an incredibly short deadline over Christmas to appeal a denial of relief under the Violence Against Women act. It was for a client who survived years of domestic violence.
Our system of justice will continue to be broken as long as it is hampered by economic inequality. Atticus Finch called our courts “the great levelers.” But that’s not really true as long as the rich can afford competent lawyers, and the poor cannot.
Those inequalities can only be and are addressed only when lawyers step up and fight for clients whether or not they have an expectation of payment.
And in that fight, Atticus continues to inspire all of us. Harper Lee wrote these words for Atticus: “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.”
William Holston is an attorney and head of the Human Rights Initiative of Dallas.