Between the 1930’s and 1960’s, racial segregation played a major role in society.
An African-American person would have to deal with racist remarks on a day-to-day basis and could do nothing about it without unjust punishment. Innocence of African-American people during these times was not respected, which was displayed clearly in Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s novel was originally published in 1960, right in the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Although, Lee bases her story in a small, racist town in the heart of Alabama in the 1930’s during the Great Depression.
Many of the common beliefs, practices, and events that happened during the 1930’s were very similar to those in the 1960’s which Lee demonstrates in her story. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee effectively criticizes how the social inequality of races relates to human morality and innocence in order to display that everlasting problem in society and to give rise to the issue of racial prejudice during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s by detailing the same issue during the depression in the 1930’s. Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama.
Growing up in the heart of one of the most racist states in history, ranked #2 in history according to “Most Racist States In the U.S.”, Lee learned at an early age the history of whites vs. blacks and how it significantly affected the people in her community. (McClung, 1). Lee lived through the Great Depression (1929-1939), with her parents and three siblings.
Lee’s father served as an attorney in the Alabama State Legislature, while her mother stayed at home the majority of the time as she possessed multiple health and mental problems. (Sullivan, 1). Lee’s father, the model for the character, Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, went against the status quo of the town and tended to assist and protect the African-Americans in the community. Lee would watch on as the majority of the whites in the community would continuously accuse African-Americans for things they could not have possibly done but be successful in having them punished. Growing up after her struggles in her early life, she attended a few colleges where she was not very social and was always staying focused on her education. After moving to New York City in 1949, Lee struggled at first, but in 1956 she got connected to an agent who helped her become a full-time writer.
(Levy, 1). She started a manuscript about the difficulties of African-American individuals in a small Alabama town during the 1930’s, which later became the published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1960. In Lee’s novel, she clearly details the major problems with the human morality of whites during the times of the Great Depression in the 1930’s and how innocence was not respected for all. Protagonist Scout Finch lives in Maycomb, Alabama, with her father, Atticus, who is an attorney in the town, and her brother, Jem, during the Great Depression.
As she grows older and starts to mature through the story and constantly takes in lessons from her father and brother, Scout begins to realize the true problems in society and how her father is playing a significant role in helping address injustice. Atticus and Miss Maudie, the family’s neighbor, explained a very important lesson to Jem and Scout one day:Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
(Lee 93).From this, Scout learned that there are innocent people in her community that are “under attack” because of solely their race. The African-Americans in her community have done nothing but benefit to others but yet with the grounded racial stereotypes of the time period, they are immorally discriminated. The “mockingbird” acts as symbolism for the African-Americans in the community. Atticus also had advised to Scout earlier in the story that, “…
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (Lee 30). Through the text, Scout learned to not be so judgemental until she actually puts a person’s life in perspective and that she should never discriminate or attack in any way a person that is doing no harm to her or the community no matter who the person is or where they come from. Lee wanted to use Scout as a gateway to the readers for them to learn these same lessons that Scout did in the story.
The real-life situations of verbal attacking, physically abusing, and overall discrimination of African-Americans were portrayed in the novel and provided insight for what it was like to live in an area with such things. With her metaphor using an innocent mockingbird to describe African-Americans and her personal life experiences built into the story, Lee exposes the horrible issue of mistreatment and the problems with human morality of whites during those times. Harper Lee uses criticism as her type of social commentary in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She explains the views from a non-racist family in a very racist southern town in Alabama to show how influential racism is not just in her small community, but in America during the 1930’s through the 1960’s. Harper Lee’s main goal in writing the novel was to explain to the people of the 1960’s that the same issues of segregation and unequal treatment between races has been happening since the birth of America and that change can all start with just one person’s actions. Lee wanted to explain how African-Americans were the model for the mockingbird symbol in the novel.
Miss Maudie explained perfectly that mockingbirds are unlike any other, that they do no harm to anyone and all they do is sing for the world to hear. The innocence that African-Americans were supposed to have from birth was disrespected and ignored by the majority of whites. One of Lee’s major goals was to express that change was needed and that the “wall” separating whites and blacks was getting bigger where it needed to be getting smaller: Historically and morally this novel provides extensive education on not only socially accepted behavior but also on one’s treatment of others. To accomplish her goal, Lee employs the innocence of children to express what she deems necessary for society; throughout the novel’s use of historical references made to the Great Depression, the Scottsboro Trial, and the attitude of white southerners, Lee immerses her reader in the social consciousness of Maycomb residents so that they might comprehend the need for change. (Stiltner, 22-23).
Lee attempts to get her readers to sympathize with the African-Americans in her novel and to show how mistreated African-Americans actually were during the 1930’s. If she could get those during the 1960’s to have sympathy for characters such as Tom Robinson, then she felt that those people would be willing to change their racist views during the Civil Rights movement. To help, Lee based many of the events in the novel off of real-life events that she lived through in the 1930’s and made connective points to the events in the 1960’s when the novel was published. Even though To Kill a Mockingbird is a realistic-fiction novel, Harper Lee does refer to real events that occurred during the 1930’s through the 1960’s. “The novel’s historical foundation begins in the opening paragraphs when Lee refers to General Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, who advocated the owning of slaves.” (Stiltner, 11). Using Jackson right at the beginning of the novel gets readers to immediately start to think about African-American lives before the abolition of slavery in 1865. Lee continues through the story describing a court case of an African-American man who was falsely accused of rape and was found guilty.
“The lessons of the infamous 1930s Scottsboro Boys case in which two young white women wrongfully accused nine African American youths of rape illustrate through fact what Harper Lee tried to instruct through her fiction. Both historical and fictional trials express the courage required to stand up for the Constitutional principle providing for equal justice to all under the law.” (Edmonds, 1).
This trial was, and still is, one of the most well-known since the time the Supreme Court decision was made in 1937. Although Lee does not specifically talk about this trial, the Tom Robinson trial in the novel is very similar to it and many people were able to compare them. Lee understood that the more she could get the readers during the 1960’s to connect with events earlier in history, she could get them to acknowledge that no significant changes have been made in society and further change was needed. The importance of this novel to society was greater than what people originally thought. To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t just explain the story of a white family supporting and trying to protect African-Americans, but it directly relates to the beliefs and issues between the 1930’s and 1960’s. “Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, which has sold over 30 million copies worldwide… The Bible, which has been translated into 2,233 languages, has sold an estimated 2.5 billion copies since 1815.” (To Kill a Mockingbird Beats Bible 1).
The novel was ranked as the top most influential and inspirational book in history, even over the Bible. The risk that Lee was willing to take in having this novel published was one that needed to be taken. So many people who read this book changed their perspective on the issues and it led to positive work and increased support during the Civil Rights movement. Change for the better was more than likely inevitable, but Lee’s novel provided a significant kick-start for the cause. Harper Lee specifically criticizes the social inequalities of unequal opportunities and benefits between races and unjust treatment within the justice system. Lee uses Scout to give her perspective on the situations during the times and effectively shows readers how society should be. In the novel, Atticus was disgusted with how the jury was full of racist white men and African-Americans were treated by many as outcasts who should not be allowed to live freely in the community.
With the accused being an African-American and the jury being all white males, Atticus knew that it was an improbable task to convince others that Tom was innocent, even though there was sufficient evidence that showed he was. Atticus also couldn’t believe that he was the only person in the community that was willing to defend him. He explained, “I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.” (Lee 209). Atticus did not believe in the integrity of the men of the court, but he continued to do his job and asked them by God to do their job.
Tom was found guilty despite the evidence saying otherwise. This showed how at the time, African-Americans were not able to have the same opportunities as a white person would in those types of situations. If an African-American was accused of anything at the time, there was a more-than-likely chance that they would be found guilty no matter what.
A white male accused of the same crime would have had a much more fair trial at least. Readers experience these things through Scout who either sees it specifically happening or is told by another character. Lee displayed all of the things that she thought were wrong in society and through Scout she was able to explain in deeper detail how changes would not only be better for the community, but would be morally right. African-Americans in history have been overall mistreated and immorally segregated. Through Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, she details events and views from the 1930’s that showed to those in the 1960’s how similar the times were and how African-Americans deserve to live normal lives just like any other person. Writing the novel in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, Lee knew that it was risky to publish it as many whites during the time would have strongly disagreed with the main themes of the novel.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee effectively criticizes social inequality of races relating to human morality and innocence in order to display that everlasting problem in society and to give rise to the issue of racial prejudice during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s by detailing the same issue during the Great Depression in the 1930’s.