“The witnesses for the State...have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption... the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you. And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro, who has had the unmitigated TEMERITY to feel sorry for a white woman, has had to put his word against TWO white people's! The defendant is not guilty - but somebody in this courtroom is. Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of GOD, do your duty. In the name of God, believe... Tom Robinson.” Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird
While it would be difficult to pin me down to a favorite film, To Kill A Mockingbird is certainly in my Top 5 (next to, say, The Shawshank Redemption and The Best Years of Our Lives). It's the movie based on Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Atticus Finch is the heroic lawyer who is willing to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman in Jim Crow Alabama. He does so at great risk to his local reputation as well as his children's lives but defends the man anyway because, well, it's the right thing to do. Predictably, Tom is found guilty and before Atticus can file an appeal, Robinson is shot in his attempt to escape. It's a story that 50-some years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still speaks powerfully to matters of social justice and moral courage.
|A great read|
I've recently begun to read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and just this morning read a portion of a chapter which focuses on the four major contenders (Lincoln among them) for the Republican Party's nominee for President of the United States in the 1860 election. Among the four was William H. Seward, an ambitious and affable politician from New York who got caught up in a similar moral storm as the fictional Atticus fifteen years before.
In 1846, Seward at forty-five years of age had already served New York as governor for two succeeding terms and had returned to private practice. In his home town of Auburn, a black man by the name of William Freeman had gone on a rampage and brutally killed a wealthy white man, his pregnant wife, their young daughter and his mother-in-law. The sheriff was lucky to get Freeman to the jail before a mob could lynch him. No one would take up his case and the locals threatened any lawyer with physical harm if he would dare to try.
As Goodwin tells the story: "When the court asked, 'Will anyone defend this man?' a 'death-like stillness pervaded the crowded room,' until Seward rose, his voice strong with emotion, and said, 'May it please the court, I shall remain counsel for the prisoner until his death!'"
He immediately was censured and criticized by friend and foe alike. Why would he be so foolhardy to jeopardize his future career in politics by taking on a case he was sure to lose? But he took the case all the same. His investigation revealed that Freeman had spent five years in jail for a crime he did not commit and that while incarcerated he had been flogged repeatedly which had left him deaf in one ear and mentally unstable. He had confessed to the crime immediately upon his arrest but in Seward's estimation he was criminally insane. In his closing argument before the jury he pleaded "...he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man." “I am not the prisoner's lawyer,” he reasoned, “..I am then lawyer for society, for mankind, shocked beyond the power of expression, at the scene I have witnessed here of trying a maniac as a malefactor.” He begged the jury not to seek the death sentence. Rather, he should be committed to an asylum for the rest of his life adding: "there is not a white man or white woman who would not have been dismissed long since from the perils of such a prosecution.”
He expected to lose his case, despite persuaded of the justice of his cause - and did. But unlike Atticus in Monroeville, later won on appeal. Sadly, before Freeman could be moved to an asylum he died in jail.
At the heart of the storm, with public opinion against him and risking his future career, his wife, Nancy, stood by her man and wrote their son that “there are few men in America who would have sacrificed so much for the cause of humanity – he has his reward in a quiet conscience and a peaceful mind.” I'm sure Harper Lee didn't have Seward in mind when she wrote her novel (actually, she was thinking of her father, Amasa “A.C.” Lee, an attorney and Alabama state legislator, whose 1923 defense of a black client is the partial backstory of the novel's trial) but in reading Nancy Seward's sentiments about her husband I can almost hear a faint echo of Aunt Maudie telling Jem, “...some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us...your father is one of them.”
I'm inspired by Seward's display of moral courage, to do the right thing because it's right not because it's expedient or, God forbid, will look good on a resume. In Goodwin's estimation, his choosing to take this case as well as several other stands he took in his early political career on the grounds of social justice eventually cost him his party's nomination for president. Is that a small price to pay for a clear conscience? He seems to have thought so.
At the close of the Freeman trial, as this distinguished man labored to persuade men whose prejudice made them tone deaf to his argument he spoke, if you will, a prophetic word: “In due time, gentlemen of the jury, when I shall have paid the debt of nature, my remains will rest here in your midst, with those of my kindred and neighbors. It is very possible they may be unhonored, neglected, spurned! But, perhaps years hence, when the passion and excitement which now agitate this community shall have passed away, some wandering stranger, some lone exile, some Indian, some negro, may erect over them a humble stone, and thereon this epitaph, 'He was Faithful!'” More than a century afterward, Goodwin observes, visitors to Seward's grave at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn would find those very words engraved on his tombstone.
As much as I like Gregory Peck and all things Mockingbird, Seward's story is true. He was a man who lived in a time where both north and south, people were ambivalent about the intrinsic worth of any person not of European descent. For his part, long before the Freeman trial he was already persuaded that slavery was an evil that needed to be eradicated from the country. While he wasn't alone in his sentiments clearly many of his contemporaries were not willing to risk so much for the life of a crazed man who had brutally killed a local family. In this he displayed remarkable fortitude and courage and is a reminder to me that there are certain hills worth risking failure for – or worse.