07/12/2010 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mockingbird at 50: Thurgood Marshall and Atticus Finch

Fifty years ago this week, Harper Lee's, To Kill a Mockingbird was introduced to the world, and today it is considered one of the most beloved American novels ever written. When I first read the book as a young boy, I remember having an intense emotional reaction--a reaction not unlike Jem's--"his face streaked with angry tears" after his father lost the verdict. I was absolutely staggered that the twelve white members of that Maycomb County jury had convicted Tom Robinson of rape, and I became drawn to stories, as both a reader and a writer, where heroic lawyers put their lives at risk to stand up for what's right. For the past two years, I have been researching and writing a book about Thurgood Marshall--arguably the most important American lawyer of the 20th century and one who shared much in common with the fictitious Atticus Finch.

In the years before he won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that ended legalized segregation in public schools, Thurgood Marshall often found himself in hostile Southern towns not unlike Lee's Maycomb, Alabama, putting himself in danger by representing powerless men falsely accused of rape or murder. At one point in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells Jem that courage is "when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." That pretty much summed up Marshall's predicament when he'd take on such cases in the South.

Their courtroom styles were not much different. Both Atticus Finch and Thurgood Marshall were polite, respectful and prepared, and Finch's closing argument on equality and "the integrity of our courts" before the Maycomb County jury could have been pulled from any number of Marshall's closing arguments in similar cases. Like Finch, Marshall often affected the hearts and minds of those who had seen him work a courtroom. In the 1940s and 50s, Marshall traveled around the South taking impossible criminal cases in front of all-white juries. They were the kinds of cases Lee described through the words of Miss Maudie, who tells Jem, "Atticus Finch won't win, he can't win, but he's the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we're making a step--it's just a baby-step, but it's a step."

Marshall was acutely aware of his responsibility, and that he was setting an example that would linger in small towns across the South. When word got out in the black communities that "Thurgood's coming," they would often drive for miles to see "Mr. Civil Rights" argue a case, and Marshall knew his performances, and the appearances of black, college educated witnesses were important baby-steps toward racial equality. One judge in Oklahoma pulled Marshall aside after a trial and told him, "These men have opened my eyes. They are the smartest men I've come across. They've done something to me right here," he told Marshall, pointing to his heart.

While the courtroom demeanor of Marshall and Atticus Finch was similar, their strategies were not. Once Tom Robinson was convicted of rape, Marshall's real work would begin. He'd have already been constructing an appeal to higher courts, most likely on the grounds that Maycomb County had systematically excluded blacks from its jury rolls--an argument that the U.S. Supreme Court had become receptive to in the 1930s, overturning several high-profile rape convictions in all-white jury cases.

In the early 1950s, Thurgood Marshall became involved in an explosive, To Kill a Mockingbird-like rape case of a young white girl in Florida. After a travesty trial by jury, the Lake County judge quickly sentenced two young black men to die in the electric chair until Marshall stepped in and had the convictions reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which noted that "the case presents one of the best examples of the worst menaces to American justice."

But while Atticus Finch was able to hold off a mob and protect his client from lynching, Marshall was not so fortunate. Fuming at Marshall's Supreme Court victory, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall drove to Raiford to transfer the defendants to a new jail for the retrial. He handcuffed both men, put them in his car, then pulled down a side road to check for a "flat tire" before he opened fire on Marshall's clients, claiming they had tried to escape. One defendant was killed, but Walter Irvin miraculously survived, pretending to be dead while cuffed to his murdered friend.

Weeks later, after Harry T. Moore, the Executive Director of the Florida NAACP had organized a campaign against Sheriff McCall, someone put a bomb under Moore's house, killing him and his wife. Marshall was told he would be next.

The second trial began under the watchful the eyes of a nation, this time with just one defendant. But unlike Atticus Finch, Marshall was much more reluctant to pursue a "she wanted it" defense on behalf of a black client accused of raping a white woman. Instead, Marshall focused on police misconduct, lack of physical evidence and perjured testimony. As charming and likable as he was, even to all-white juries, Marshall did not see much good that could come from him cross examining a young white girl about possible consensual sex with a black man in the South. He once noted that he knew he had convinced a jury of a client's innocence when they "returned a life verdict" rather than a death sentence. And in many cases, Marshall was able to save lives by connecting to American citizens through the ideals of liberty and justice for all men, rather than putting a perceived "rape victim" on trial--which is what he was able to do in the case of Walter Irvin in Florida.

Not long ago, I learned that Harper Lee had written To Kill a Mockingbird while living half a block away from where I've lived in Manhattan for the past 15 years. Frustrated with her writing, she claims to have flung pages out the window onto York Avenue one evening, only to collect them in the snow a short time later on the demand of her panicked agent. Not long after, Lee found a new apartment just across the street, where she would, until very recently, spend her summers in New York, away from the sweltering Alabama heat.

Unacquainted neighbors, I was informed by a reliable source that we got our coffee at the same place each morning. Perhaps I'd once obliviously held the door for Harper Lee! I knew she was a very private person, and I had convinced myself I would never say anything more than hello, were we ever to meet on the coffee line. Yet I found myself paying more attention to the people on my block, hoping I might actually recognize her. Recently, I was walking by the small, nondescript brick building and the front door was propped open. Without thinking, I stepped into the dark lobby and my heart raced for a moment, as if I were Jem sneaking onto Boo Radley's porch. I stole a glance at the intercom, then quickly retreated from the lobby, into the sunlight. I had seen her name.

One evening, my 12 year-old daughter saw some photographs of a disheveled white man with a Stetson hat standing over two bodies, handcuffed together, lying in a ditch. She asked me what I was working on, and, startled, I pushed the pictures into a folder. It occurred to me that my daughter has grown up in a different time and a different place than Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, and there's no denying that the country is different, too, in part because of the heroics of a real life lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. But instead of going into the details of Marshall's life right then, I asked if I could put her to bed by reading her one of my favorite books. Written, I told her, by a neighbor just down the street from us.