Harper Lee’s to Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was set in the 1930s. During this time, one of the biggest problems that the United States was facing was the issue of racism. Racism is one of the main themes in Lee’s novel. The issue of whites versus blacks and the power that people who have white skin have over those who do not is a major part of the story’s plot. All of the characters were affected by racism in one way or another. The book is written from the perspective of a young girl named Scout. Scout’s father, Atticus, is determined to make sure that his children are not racist like all of the other people in their hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, “I hope and pray that I can get Jem and Scout through it without bitterness, and most of all, without catching Maycomb’s usual disease ( Lee 100). The people in Maycomb, Alabama, where the story takes place, heavily base the way they treat a person on the color of the person’s skin. However, this was not only occurring in the book, but all throughout America at that time, and it is still somewhat a problem today. Racism is not as big of an issue in America today as it was in the 1930s, but it does still exist. There are still?”and always will be?”people who judge others based on their ethnicity and the color of their skin. The main conflict in To Kill a Mockingbird was the trial of Tom Robinson, a young black man, versus Mayella Ewell, a young white female.
Tom was accused of raping Mayella and Scout’s father, Atticus, is chosen by the judge, John Taylor, to defend Tom at his trial. Atticus was chosen because Taylor knew that he would be the only lawyer who would make a genuine effort to defend Tom. Atticus knew from the very beginning that he was going to lose, but he was determined to try anyway, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win (Lee 87). Everyone in Maycomb knew that no matter how hard Atticus tried to defend Tom and regardless of how much proof he had that Tom was innocent, Tom was going to be found guilty because every person on the jury was a white man and they were going to find Tom guilty even though there was not any real proof that he did anything wrong, “The jury couldn’t possibly be expected to take Tom Robinson’s word against the Ewells’ (Lee 100). Tom was a black man going up against a white woman and her family in front of a white jury. The jury was automatically going to favor the Ewells because they would look bad to the community if they did not. In 1892, a man named Homer Plessy boarded a train, sat in a car meant for white people only, and refused to leave.
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Plessy was actually only one-eighth black, but was still classified as black by Louisiana law (“Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson). Plessy had planned out this act of disobedience in order to start up a case about the legality of segregation and the “separate but equal mentality (“Plessy v. Ferguson). Plessy argued that his constitutional rights were being violated, but the Supreme Court rejected this and ruled that a state law that implied a legal distinction between blacks and whites was not a violation of the 13th and 14th amendments (“Plessy v. Ferguson). The Supreme court ruled that it was legal to have racially segregated public facilities as long as the facilities for blacks and whites were equal (“Brown v. Board of Education). After the trial, laws known as “Jim Crow laws that enforced separate public accommodations for blacks and whites started to be enforced (“Plessy v. Ferguson). Jim Crow was a racial caste system that included a lot of anti-black laws (“What was Jim Crow).
These laws started to affect almost every aspect of the lives of the blacks and enforced the idea that black people and white people belonged in separate worlds. The laws made it mandatory that public places and businesses were segregated. Signs reading “Whites Only and “Colored were put up everywhere as a constant reminder to the blacks which areas they could and could not enter (“Jim Crow Laws). The laws were supposed to seem as though blacks were being treated equally, but this was not actually the case, “In legal theory, blacks received “separate but equal” treatment under the law ?” in actuality, public facilities for blacks were nearly always inferior to those for whites, when they existed at all (“Jim Crow Laws). Many Christian ministers were teaching that white people were God’s chosen people and that God supported racial segregation. They also said that blacks were cursed to be the servants of the whites. Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and Darwinists believed that blacks were intellectually and culturally inferior to whites. Blacks were constantly referred to as niggers, coons, and darkies in newspapers and magazines and the articles in them reinforced anti-black stereotypes.
Even games played by children showed blacks as being inferior to whites (“What was Jim Crow). The Jim Crow system was based on the belief that whites were better than blacks in pretty much every way possible: “The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs or rationalizations: whites were superior to blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality, and civilized behavior; sexual relations between blacks and whites would produce a mongrel race which would destroy America; treating blacks as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity which suggested social equality encouraged interracial sexual relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy (“What was Jim Crow). There were many rules of etiquette that blacks had to follow when it came to how they were supposed to interact with white people. A black man was not allowed to offer his hand to shake hands with a white man because that implied that they were socially equal and he could not offer any part of his body to a white female because if he did, he risked the chance of being accused of rape.
Also, a colored man could not offer to light a white females’ cigarette because this was viewed as being an intimate gesture. Blacks and whites were not allowed to eat together, but if they did, the whites had to be served first and there had to be some sort of division between the whites and the blacks (“What was Jim Crow). Other rules blacks had to follow were that colored people were not allowed to show any public displays of affection because it offended the whites, blacks had to be introduced to whites and not the other way around, and whites did not call the blacks titles like mister, misses, miss, or sir, but instead called them by their first names. This was the exact opposite for the blacks because they could only call whites by proper titles and never by their first names.
In addition, if a black person rode in a car that a white person was driving, they had to sit in the back seat or in the back of a trunk, not in front by the white, and the whites had the right-of-way at all intersections (“What was Jim Crow). Jim Crow laws continued to be in effect until the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. A man named Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas because his daughter, Linda, had been denied entrance to the all-white elementary school there. Brown argued in his lawsuit that the schools for blacks and the schools for whites were not equal and that segregation was a violation of the “equal protection clause of the 14th amendment that says, “no state can ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws’ (“Brown v. Board of Education). Brown’s case was presented to the U.S. District Court in Kansas and the court agreed that public segregation had a harmful effect on the colored children and contributed to the sense of inferiority that the blacks felt, but that it still upheld the “separate but equal doctrine. In 1952, Brown’s case, along with four other cases related to school segregation, went before the Supreme Court. The cases were combined into one case under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, was the chief attorney for the plaintiffs and eventually became the first black Supreme Court justice. The justices were divided at first on how to rule on school segregation. Chief Justice Fred Vinson thought that the verdict from the Plessy v. Ferguson trial should stand, but he died in September 1953 before the trial was to be heard.
Vinson was then replaced by the governor of California, Earl Warren, who was able to get a unanimous verdict the following year that was against school segregation and wrote “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place (“Brown v. Board of Education). Warren said that the segregated schools were “inherently unequal and that the plaintiffs were not being given the equal protection promised to them by the 14th amendment. The Supreme Court did not specify how schools should be integrated, but did ask that there be further arguments about it. The Court issued a second opinion about the case in May 1955 which sent future desegregation cases to the lower federal courts and instructed district courts and school boards to continue with desegregation. Even though the Court’s actions were well intentioned, this allowed for judicial and political evasion of desegregation. Some states, like Kansas, followed the instructions of the verdict, but many local officials and schools in the South did not. In 1957 in Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus called on the state National Guard to stop nine black students from attending high school, but President Eisenhower sent in federal troops and the students, who became known as the “Little Rock Nine, were allowed to enter the school under the protection of the federal troops (“Brown v. Board of Education).
The Supreme Court’s verdict in Brown v. Board of Education fueled the civil rights movement in America. A year after the verdict, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Laws stated that whites sat in the front of the bus and blacks sat in the back and everyone knew that bus drivers had the authority to ask blacks to give up their seat to a white person, even if there were not any other seats available (“Rosa Parks). In December of 1955, Rosa Parks was riding on a bus in Montgomery when she and three other African Americans were asked to get up out of their seats because there was a white man who did not have a place to sit as all of the seats in the white section were taken. The three other people got up, but Parks did not. Some people speculated that the reason she refused to get up was because she was tired, but according to Parks, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in (“Rosa Parks). Two police officers eventually came and arrested Rosa Parks who was eventually released on bail. The president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, Edgar Daniel Nixon, had hoped to find a courageous black person to become the plaintiff in a case that would test the legitimacy of segregation laws and convinced Parks to be that plaintiff. The black people in Montgomery decided to boycott the buses on the day of the trial and sent out 35,000 flyers home with schoolchildren to let their parents know about the boycott. Rosa Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws, given a suspended sentence, and fined (“Rosa Parks). Participation in the boycott was a lot larger than anyone had expected and Nixon and a few ministers decided to take advantage of this.
They created the Montgomery Improvement Association in order to manage the boycott and elected Martin Luther King Jr. as its president. The boycott made a lot of the whites in Montgomery angry and some of them even became violent and bombed King and Nixon’s homes. However, this did not stop the boycott and it started gaining a lot of attention from the press. The Supreme Court ruled on November 13th, 1956 that bus segregation was unconstitutional and the boycott ended on December 20th. Rosa Parks eventually came to be known as “the mother of the civil rights movement (“Rosa Parks). During the 1950s and the 1960s, blacks were fighting harder than ever to gain equal rights. The creation of the 15th amendment in 1870 had given blacks the right to vote, but white people were not making it easy for them to do so. Blacks were often required to take literacy tests before they could vote that were almost impossible for them to pass. The Eisenhower Administration pressured Congress to consider new civil rights legislation to try to lessen racial tensions in the south and show that they were committed to the civil right movement. In 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which allowed that anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting could be prosecuted and commited a commision to investigate voter fraud (“Civil Rights Movement). The Civil Rights Act did not; however, make whites stop being prejudice. On August 28, 1963, a march took place in Washington for the civil rights movement. The march was organized by people like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr, who were all civil rights leaders. There were more that 200,000 people, both blacks and whites, that gathered in Washington D.C. to attend (Civil Rights Movement). The purpose of the march was to force civil rights legislation and establish job equality for people of every race.
The march was where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream speech that talked about his hopes for equality, “And when this happenswe will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ (“March on Washington). The legislation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was initiated by President John F. Kennedy before his death and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2. The act guaranteed equal employment for everyone, limited the use of the literacy tests given to blacks before they could vote, and gave federal authorities the right to ensure that public facilities were integrated. In 1965, 600 people in Alabama protested in the Selma to Montgomery march because of the death of a black civil rights activist who had been killed by a white police officer. During their march, they were blocked by police and when they refused to stand down and tried to move forward, they were beaten and tear gassed by the police, resulting in many of the protestors being sent to the hospital.
The march had been shown on television and became known as “Bloody Sunday (“Civil Rights Movement). Some people wanted to use violence to retaliate, but Martin Luther King Jr. wanted there to be nonviolent protests and eventually he was able to get federal protection for another march. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that banned all of the literacy tests and allowed the attorney general to contest state and local poll taxes?” poll taxes were later declared unconstitutional. At the end of the 1960s, two of the leaders of the civil rights movement were killed. Malcolm X, the former Nation of Islam leader and founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity was killed at a rally on February 21, 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968 (“Civil Rights Movement). Their deaths caused many riots and put pressure on the Johnson administration to create additional civil rights laws. On April 11, 1968, the Fair Housing Act, which prevented housing discrimination, became law and was the last legislation created during the civil rights era (“Civil Rights Movement). It took a long time and a lot of hard work for people of color to have the rights and the freedom that they have in America today.
They had to fight extremely hard to earn the rights that they should have been given from day one. Racism does still exist in America today, but it is not nearly as bad as it was in the past. For the most part, people are no longer being judged by the color of their skin, but by who they are as a person. America still has a long way to go before it is totally racism free, but there has been a lot of progress made since the 1900s. Blacks are no longer being treated like outsiders or like they have some kind of disease that the whites are afraid of catching. They are able to go into any public facility or get any job that a white person is able to. An African-American even became the President of the United States. During the civil rights movement, many blacks lost their lives so that their children could gain a future that was free from racism.