This week marks the 53rd anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Some people regard this book as one of the most important literary treatments of racial issues ever written. In light of some unpleasant racial dynamics coursing through America’s social bloodstream, it might be good to revisit this groundbreaking novel.
We all remember the story. Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of committing a violent attack on a white woman. As soon as the allegation becomes public, a prejudiced segment of society pronounces Tom guilty. Those so eager to convict have no interest in hearing Tom’s side of the story. To their biased minds, he is condemned simply because he is black and the victim is white.
These people see no need to wait for a trial. They had no interest in hearing the evidence. No matter how persuasive the facts, no matter how obvious the truth, they won’t be shaken from their self-righteous certainty that the white victim must be believed and the black defendant must be guilty.
To their shallow minds, they are justified in ignoring the safeguards of the law. They decide to lynch Tom without wasting time hearing the facts or allowing the judicial system to take its course. Tom’s life is saved — temporarily — when the lynch mob, “through the mouth of babes” is brought face-to-face with the sorry nature of its cowardly behavior.
But Tom’s ordeal doesn’t end when the lynch mob disbands. At his trial, any fair-minded person hearing the evidence would certainly conclude the state hadn’t and couldn’t establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But the burden of proof is no obstacle to racial bigots. They hear only what they want to hear. The only evidence they credit is evidence that conforms to their preconceived notion that Tom is guilty. They seize on testimony that is inherently unbelievable offered by witnesses who are patently unreliable and biased. They are blind and deaf to anything that points to Tom’s innocence.
In the end, an innocent man is found guilty, not because he committed the crime, but because he is the victim of racially biased public opinion.
Harper Lee intends for the reader to be outraged and heartbroken at the terrible injustice of a life destroyed when racial prejudice predetermines outcome and blinds people to the truth. Any fair-minded person who reads this book must surely agree that racial bias — of any kind — has no legitimate place in rendering conclusions on matters of guilt or innocence. It would be just as wrong for a white defendant to be convicted because of his race as it was to convict Tom Robinson because of his.
Make no mistake. Those bigots who were so quick to cry out for Tom Robinson’s blood were convinced they were right. This is the disgusting nature of prejudice. It is blind to its own inherent evil.
Many of the most outspoken racists on the American scene today would deny the fact that they are racist. They are so busy pointing out the biased motes in the eyes of others, that they can’t see the racial beams in their own.
Those racists who are willing to acknowledge the fact to justify their prejudice by making arguments that fall under the rubric of “two wrongs make a right.” In other words, because a segment of society was racist and committed wrongful acts, it’s OK to use race as a bludgeon to punish their descendants. But racial justification for punishing others is wrong — no matter whom the punisher is.
I couldn’t help but think of To Kill a Mockingbird as I observed the emotional maelstrom sweeping George Zimmerman toward judgment. There is an aggressive and vocal segment of society that reached a judgment on Zimmerman’s guilt on the strength of race alone. These people would accept nothing short of a murder charge without regard to the underlying facts.
At trial, it is obvious that many observers are totally oblivious to any evidence tending to prove Mr. Zimmerman’s innocence. They are so emotionally invested in seeing him convicted that they refuse to see and hear any fact inconsistent with that outcome.
It would be a sad day in America if law enforcement officers, judges and juries become the hostages of racial prejudice. Bigotry triumphs when law officers fear to do the right thing because of a potential racial backlash. Prejudice is exalted when judges make or withhold rulings in court with an eye toward racial responses outside the courtroom. Injustice is the victor when a jury cannot acquit because racial bias stands in the way. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.