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What does Atticus mean when he says "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win" in To...

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In chapter 9, Atticus talks to Scout about a fight she had gotten into with Cecil Jacobs at school. Atticus believes that people should attempt to keep the peace, even if others attempt to use words to start societal division and violence. Atticus encourages his daughter, Scout, to live a peaceful life, even if others speak unkindly to her. He explains:

"You might hear some ugly talk about [my involvement with Tom Robinson's courtcase], but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don't let 'em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change . . . " 

Scout often turns to violence as a method of dealing with her quarrels and disagreements. Rather than using her words as a weapon, she uses her hands. Atticus wants her to return to using words to express what she believe in. After this conversation, where Atticus explains the importance of this court case and instructs Scout to use words instead of violence, Scout asks him if he will win the case. He responds bluntly:


"No, honey."

"Then why--"

"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

In this passage, "licked" means defeated or conquered. Atticus is not merely concerned with winning this court case. He realizes that he has a great difficulty, racial prejudice, that is hindering his defense of Tom Robinson. Tom has been accused by a white family of raping a white woman (Mayella Ewell); because he is opposed by white-skinned people, it is highly unlikely that he can win the court case. 

Nonetheless, it is still important for Atticus to defend Tom Robinson because he believes he is innocent. Throughout the text, the symbol of a mockingbird is used to express the idea of innocence. Tom Robinson is considered to be a mockingbird, or an innocent being, that Atticus believes deserves to be defended. Not only does Atticus try to live a morally upright life but he also tries to train his children to live virtuously. He teaches them to defend the innocent, such as when he teaches his children that they can shoot blue jays and other mean birds, but that they should never shoot innocent song birds (ie: mockingbirds).

This theme, teaching morality, is seen many times in the novel. Many of these lessons are discussed when Scout climbs onto Atticus's lap as he is reading in the evenings. Scout sometimes climbs into Atticus's lap when she wants comfort, when she wants to read with him, or when she wants to talk to him about life. In chapter 26, Atticus tells Scout that she is getting "so big now, [that he'd] just have to hold part of her" (331). This is a sign that Scout is growing into a wise young adult woman; the moral lessons that she's been learning from Atticus are helping her (as well as Jem and even Dill) to grow up.

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