In Search of Ethics in to Kill a Mockingbird: Understanding Race and Justice in Maycomb

by Marlon Simmons

On the night of August 21st 1931, the town of Maycomb stood still. In the segregated court of the small Alabama town, an all white male jury tried an African-American man by the name of Tom Robinson. Represented by a white lawyer Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson was found guilty of raping a white woman and was later shot to death after he allegedly attempted to flee. The trial unfolded in a gripping way in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

The film gives us an epoch entrenched in bigotry and institutionalized racism. At the surface level the film can be easily interpreted as disseminating racist narratives. Yet, we might ask how we might critically re-think To Kill a Mockingbird to better understand these historical colonial tropes of race as it centers itself within the courtroom of Maycomb. Atticus Finch is faced with the ethical question of: What does it mean to be an ethical lawyer within the racist matrix of Maycomb? Ultimately, Atticus has to engage with principles of loyalty, justice, honesty, fairness and integrity as he defends Tom Robinson in a justice system that embodies the ethics of racism.

Maycomb signifies a town socio-culturally embedded within historical colonial attitudes of race and gender. Indeed, Atticus becomes implicated in this complex historical web. What does it mean for Atticus, a white prominent lawyer, to embody justice, integrity and equal rights for all and to simultaneously undertake an African-American woman as a servant? How do we make sense of justice by way of separate spaces for black and white attendants of the courtroom? What does it mean for a black man to feel sorry for a white woman? It is within this context that Atticus is set forth with the task of accessing justice for an African-American man where institutionalized racism prevails. Often enough, within public spaces, the ethics of race has been placed tangentially to our discussions, yet race embodies our everyday social interactions. Perhaps in trying to understand what does it mean to be an ethical lawyer by way of re-thinking To Kill a Mockingbird, we might begin by centering the conversation through race to attempt to come to know and recognize racial privilege and power, and exclusion of racialised bodies as conscripted through colonial forms of whiteness.

The evidence of racism is difficult to pin down. Racism is not easily measured in some calculable, quantifying amount. Take, in fact, how the colonial ethics of racism revealed itself during Tom Robinson’s cross-examination. Tom Robinson mentioned he felt sorry for Mayella Ewell. The idea of the abject black man to have the emotional and material capacity to feel sorry for a white woman is unimaginable in the town of Maycomb. This inevitably speaks to the human condition of blackness or, put another way, the de-humanizing condition of what constitutes blackness in the Southern town of Maycomb. What we are asked to acquiesce with is the civility of whiteness as homogenous to understanding the black subject and as homogenous to the justice system embedded within the town of Maycomb. Yet, the defense of Tom Robinson marks the moment in which Atticus intervenes this white civility as the ethics of justice. Atticus as he embodies whiteness is left with challenging this very said whiteness as whiteness comes to embody “truth”, “honesty”, “fairness”, and “justice” as embedded within the justice system of Maycomb. Indeed, Atticus conducted himself by standards informed through personal morals. Tom Robinson may have been found guilty resulting in his death, however the lawyering ethics of Atticus gives us hope, it speaks to the possibilities for lawyers as an agent of social justice and the possibilities for social transformation through lawyering. We must believe that Atticus made a difference by defending an African-American in a time laden with racial divisions. In defending Tom Robinson the underlying ethical question Atticus faced is, what does it mean for a black man to be human and what are the ensuing implications for justice?

As a racialised student of law, with a particular interest in social change and social justice, Atticus touched me in many ways. I say this to in no way to sensationalize the lawyering attributes of Atticus to some form of white male hero that in a totalizing way saved the black community of Maycomb. What Atticus did, spoke to the principles of fundamental justice. Atticus gives us a sense of hope in that, even in this explicitly racist epoch, he took up a particular ethical location by way of defending an accused African-American man with integrity. When Bob Ewell confronts Atticus after he accepts to defend Tom Robinson, Atticus plainly says that his job is to defend Tom Robinson, amplifying the necessary values of loyalty to client and fidelity to law. What To Kill a Mockingbird leaves me struggling with is making sense of Boo Radley’s complicity in the murder of Bob Ewell who concomitantly does not have to face the justice system. Supposedly this serves as a substitute for justice in the death of Tom Robinson. How do we make sense of the silence of Atticus concerning Bob Ewell’s death? What does it mean for Atticus to be an ethical lawyer in this moment? Nevertheless, given these political inconsistencies concerning ethics in the town of Maycomb, the film gives us a host of conversations to speak about race and the complexity of issues concerning loyalty, justice, integrity, fairness and honesty in our contemporary legal system.

[Marlon Simmons wrote this paper for a course in Professional Responsibility taught by Professor Adam Dodek at Ottawa University Faculty of Law]


  1. Not much has changed in the justice system don’t you think?