A Preview of the Review’s Harper Lee Edition

In Winter 2016, the Cumberland Law Review will feature a symposium of articles reflecting on Harper Lee’s works: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. Below, Cumberland School of Law’s Professor J. Mark Baggett’s Preface to Volume 47:1 summarizes what our readers can expect!

“This issue of the Cumberland Law Review is devoted to Harper Lee, whose death on February 19, 2016, closed the last eventful chapter of her life. Her novel Go Set a Watchman, the early draft of the novel that was revised to become To Kill a Mockingbird, was published on July 14, 2015 to swirling controversies over her capacity to assent to publish, over the ethics of publishing a rough draft as an independent work, and over the depiction of Atticus Finch, now a segregationist who works to keep the NAACP out of Maycomb and who opposes Brown v. Board of Education.

All lawyers are invested in Harper Lee. In To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), she exposed the injustices of the entire legal system in the South to an international audience, who reacted with revulsion. Her novel helped propel the Civil Rights Movement. Even in 2015, the popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird was largely responsible for the massive sales of Go Set a Watchman, one of the biggest events in American publishing history. Lee’s creation of Atticus Finch, based on her father, has sustained his iconic status. His moral courage in defending Tom Robinson has made him the role model for lawyers everywhere, the embodiment of Thoreau’s dictum, “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.” So powerful was Lee’s fictional character that Atticus has become almost an historical figure. Despite Atticus’s fall in Watchman, the figure of Atticus has undoubtedly emboldened reform in the South and ennobled the legal profession.

Harper Lee abandoned her study of the law to move to New York, but she never abandoned the primacy of the law in her novels. The one firm link between Watchman and Mockingbird is Lee’s faith in the law as an instrument of social justice. She articulated one of the law’s greatest achievements and one of its greatest challenges in Atticus’s closing argument to the jury in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Our 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.”

In Birmingham and in Alabama, the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, a study of Harper Lee’s works is even more obligatory. Her father, Amasa Lee, was a respected member of the Alabama Bar Association in Monroeville. His sister Alice, who died in November 2014 at age 103, was the first woman member of the Alabama bar.  In 1997, the bar erected an Atticus Finch Monument in a courtyard outside the famous courthouse. Its inscription concludes:

Children are the original and universal people of the world; it is only when they are educated into hatreds and depravities that children become the bigots, the cynics, the greedy, and the intolerant, and it is then that “there hath passed away a glory from the earth.” Atticus Finch challenges the legal profession to shift the paradigm and make the child the father of the man in dealing with the basic conflicts and struggles that permeate moral existence.

Symbolically, it is the legal profession that now sits in the jury box as Atticus Finch concludes his argument to the jury; “In the name of God, do your duty.” [1]

The articles in this volume answer the challenge by trying to assess Harper Lee’s legacy and its implications for the legal profession.”

Professor J. Mark Baggett

*Want to read this edition in print? Visit our Subscription page (here), or email lawrev@samford.edu for more information about subscribing to the Cumberland Law Review!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s