Friday, February 6, 2015

In honor of those who fight for the wrongly accused: "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."

It is among the greatest lines in all of American literature; for me, it is the single most powerful moment in all of motion pictures. It speaks to the honor due to all who battle tyranny, especially those who fight for the falsely accused.

I refer to the line spoken at the conclusion of the rape trial in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1960, "To Kill A Mockingbird," repeated in the film of the novel two years later.

Some context: despite his brilliant and impassioned defense, attorney Atticus Finch, a white man, has just lost a criminal trial of a black man falsely accused of rape. Such losses were routine in the Old South, where white women could, and too often did, have black men and boys put to death by just uttering the word "rape."

Atticus' defense of the innocent man was very unpopular in the local white community, but that didn't dissuade him from taking the case, or from doing his best to win. But now it was over, and he had lost. With the death penalty almost certainly awaiting his client, an innocent man, Atticus tries to console him before he is led away. Then Atticus packs up his papers and starts to exit the courtroom.

What happens next is so simple, so pitch-perfect right, yet so unexpected, that it knocks the wind out of us. A crowd of black spectators had attended the trial to lend moral support to the innocent man. They were forced to sit in the courtroom's balcony, and that's also where Atticus' young daughter, Jean Louise ("Scout"), sits, next to the leader of the black community, Rev. Sykes. The black community had just witnessed one of their own being taken away for a crime he did not commit, yet they linger on the balcony, waiting for Atticus to leave.

This is the scene, from Harper Lee's classic novel:

Atticus took his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the courtroom, not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle toward the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up. 

Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus's lonely walk down the aisle. 

"Miss Jean Louise?" 

I looked around. They were all standing. All around us and on the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Syke's voice was as distant at Judge Taylor's: 

 "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'." 

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Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the motion picture, said that when actor Bill Walker, playing Rev. Sykes, delivered that line, "he wrapped up the Academy Award for me."

Tyranny wears many disguises. In the Old South, too often it wore a badge that turned its head as the lynch mob dispensed with due process with a tree and a rope. On modern college campuses, tyranny gussies itself up with PhDs and insists on being called "professor" while it purports to correct perceived past injustices against women by treating young men accused of rape as presumptively guilty.

But wherever tyranny rears its ugly head, there will always be an Atticus Finch to battle it. He won't always win -- in fact, he usually loses -- but battle it he will. And when he passes, we should stop what we're doing and stand.