Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. To commemorate it, President Obama screened the film at the White House, USA played the movie with limited commercial interruption, and most importantly, I tattooed a mockingbird on my wrist to remind myself of the social injustice we are still fighting, all these years later.
Last week I went to Alabama on a Teach For America leadership journey. On our second day, we visited the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, which provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. In otherwords, these are the real life Atticus Finches.
Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of EJI, had some strong feelings about my beloved story. He argued that we celebrate Atticus Finch, the hero (white) lawyer, but often forget about the tragic (black) Tom Robinson. The Monroe County Courthouse boasts a tribute to Atticus. There is no mention of Tom Robinson to be found. I shamefully hid my freshly inked wrist from Mr. Stevenson.
Even President Obama’s introduction to the film hailed Atticus Finch as the hero of the story, citing his bravery to do what was right, no matter what the cost. He never spoke to the needless death of Tom Robinson.
Now don’t get me wrong, Atticus is worth celebrating, but not without remembering what he fought against. Why don’t we hold Tom Robinson in the same esteem? Is our country okay giving props to a white lawyer who did some unpleasant work but not okay acknowledging the wrongfully accused black man?
So here’s to you, Mr. Robinson. Every time I look down at my mockingbird, I will remember you and your unfair trial and your hopeless fight to save your innocent life. I will still remember the Atticus Finches of EJI working to save the Tom Robinsons of the world, but I will remember what Harper Lee was really writing about.