ashland.news
July 18, 2024

Chris Honoré: Harper Lee and the Supreme Court

Image by Sergei Tokmakov, Esq. from Pixabay
June 15, 2024

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ reminds us of the vulnerabilities of our justice system, a system that should be free of the whims of bias and greed

By Chris Honoré

Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” judged to be one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century, selling some 40 million copies, passed away in 2016. She was 89. Published in 1960, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961.

Chris Honoré

Set in the small southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the late 1930s, the story is told through the eyes of a young, motherless girl, Jean Louise Finch, 6, called Scout by her family (her brother Jem, 10; Atticus, a middle-aged Southern lawyer; and Calpurnia, their housekeeper).

It is Atticus’ fundamental decency that frames the novel, a decency made most evident when he defends an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman. The solitary image of Atticus standing before an all-white jury and making an appeal on Tom’s behalf is both memorable, moving, and iconic.

He said: “… there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller.… That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States, or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court in which we serve. But courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal…. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”

Atticus spoke those words in the context of not only the Great Depression, but in the shadow of a Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, that validated the “separate but equal” reality of the South and broadened the shadow of Jim Crow across the nation for decades to come. And yet he spoke out of a profound hope and untarnished idealism that somehow, in that place, in that time, those men seated before him would transcend the endemic racism and prejudices that threaded through society and would do “their duty.”

Clearly, Atticus knew that it was unlikely that the white men on that jury could break free of what had become for them a social imperative: The Black man was inferior to the white man. A reflexive notion that was crafted during slavery and further distilled in those Jim Crow decades following the Civil War and is, to our shame, still with us.

Our courts are indeed flawed. Our justice system continues to grapple with the mandate to create a milieu wherein it is indeed the great “leveler” and all men are created equal.

But despite the self-evident imperfections, we remain still a nation of laws and not of men and women. It is our shared belief in the law that stands between us and chaos, and we are reliant upon the law to save us from ourselves.

The ultimate and essential arbiter of the law is the Supreme Court, the inviolable third branch of our government that should be free of the whims of politics, bias, or greed but guided by our Constitution — and, yes, decency.

Email Ashland resident Chris Honoré at honore307@gmail.com.

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