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.
The line is spoken at the conclusion of the rape trial in Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” repeated in the film of the novel two years later.
Some context: despite his brilliant and impassioned defense, Atticus Finch, a white attorney in the American Deep South, has just lost a criminal trial of a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman. Such losses were routine in that region of our country, where white women could, and too often did, have black males put to death just by uttering the word “rape.” Atticus’ defense of the innocent man was scorned by the local white community, but that didn’t dissuade him from taking the case, or from doing his best to win it.
But now it was over, and he has 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, yet so unexpected and pitch-perfect right, that it leaves a heartbreakingly indelible impression. 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. That’s also where Atticus’ daughter, Jean Louise (nicknamed “Scout”), sits, next to the leader of the black community, Rev. Sykes. The black community has just witnessed one of its own being led away for a crime he obviously did not commit. Yet the spectators lingered in the balcony, waiting for Atticus to leave the courtroom.
This is the scene, from Harper Lee’s classic novel, as told by young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch:
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’.”
Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the classic 1962 motion picture with quiet but determined dignity, said that when actor Bill Walker, who played Rev. Sykes, delivered that line – “Stand up. Your father’s passin’” — “he wrapped up the Academy Award for me.” Indeed he had.
In 2003, the American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch the greatest hero in American film, ahead of Indiana Jones and James Bond.
So revered is the character among real-life lawyers that, last year, the ABA Journal asked a panel of experts to pick their favorite fictional lawyer, but it exempted Atticus Finch from the competition — including Atticus wouldn’t be fair to the other characters. No figure has inspired more young people to become lawyers than Atticus, even though Atticus lost the case for which he is best known.
This April, a postage stamp will honor Gregory Peck and Atticus by featuring a photo of Peck playing Atticus in the film.
Injustice often wears the disguise of respectability. In the Deep South, too often it wore a badge and turned its head while the lynch mob spared judges from having to pretend to give black men and boys a fair trial for allegedly raping white women.
On modern college campuses, it gussies itself up with PhDs and tenure and insists on being called “professor” while it purports to correct perceived past wrongs against women by treating young men accused of sexual assault as presumptively guilty.
In the newsrooms of America’s leading dailies, it masquerades as crusading reporters but allows progressive sympathies to trump journalistic ethics by labeling rape accusers “victims,” and by parroting the accuser’s side of the story as fact.
But wherever injustice appears, there is always an Atticus Finch to battle it, and to inspire us to battle it, too. He doesn’t always win; in fact, he usually doesn’t. But battle it he does. And when he passes, we should stand up, and give him the honor he’s due.