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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 the white-skinned people 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 his children are not racist like 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, 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 also all throughout America at that time, and is still somewhat a problem today. Racism is not as big 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. They were going to find Tom guilty even though there was not any real proof that he had done 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 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 in 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 stated 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 depicted 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 virtually 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. Furthermore, 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 woman’s cigarette, as it was viewed as 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 division between the whites and the blacks (“What was Jim Crow”). Other rules that blacks had to follow included; colored people were not allowed to show any public displays of affection because it offended the whites; blacks had to be introduced to whites, not the other way around; and whites did not address blacks with titles such as 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 refer to 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 trunk, not in the front with the white person, 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 violated the “equal protection clause of the 14th amendment,” which states, “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. The court agreed that public segregation had a harmful impact on colored children and contributed to the sense of inferiority that blacks felt. However, it still upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine. In 1952, Brown’s case, along with four other cases related to school segregation, went to the Supreme Court. These cases were combined into one case named Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall, served as the chief attorney for the plaintiffs and eventually became the first black Supreme Court justice. The justices were initially divided 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 case could be heard.
Vinson was then replaced by the Governor of California, Earl Warren, who was able to secure a unanimous verdict the following year against school segregation. He declared, “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” (“Brown v. Board of Education”). Warren asserted that the segregated schools were “inherently unequal”; the plaintiffs were being denied the equal protection promised to them by the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court did not specify how schools should be integrated, but requested further arguments on the issue. In May 1955, the Court issued a second opinion about the case, which directed future desegregation cases to the lower federal courts and instructed district courts and school boards to advance with desegregation. Despite the Court’s good intentions, this enabled judicial and political evasion of desegregation. Some states, like Kansas, adhered to the instructions of the verdict, but many local officials and schools in the South did not. In 1957, in Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus invoked the state National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending high school. Yet, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops and the students, famously known as the “Little Rock Nine,” were allowed to attend the school under federal protection (“Brown v. Board of Education”).
The historic Supreme Court verdict in Brown v. Board of Education galvanized the civil rights movement in America. A year after the verdict, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white man. Laws specified that whites sat in the front and blacks in the back, and it was universally acknowledged that bus drivers could ask blacks to relinquish their seats to white people, even if no other seats were available (“Rosa Parks”). In December 1955, Rosa Parks was on a bus in Montgomery when she and three other African Americans were asked to vacate their seats for a white man because all the seats in the white section were occupied. While the other three complied, Parks did not. Some speculated that a physically tired Parks refused to get up, a claim she denied, saying, “I was not physically tired. The only tired I was, was tired of giving in” (“Rosa Parks”). Two police officers eventually arrived and arrested Rosa Parks, who was later released on bail. Edgar Daniel Nixon, the President of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, had been seeking a courageous black person to serve as the plaintiff in a case that would challenge the constitutionality of segregation laws, and persuaded Parks to undertake that role. The black community in Montgomery opted to boycott the buses on the trial day and disseminated 35,000 flyers via schoolchildren to inform their parents. Rosa Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws, was given a suspended sentence, and fined (“Rosa Parks”). The boycott elicited a greater response than anyone had anticipated, encouraging Nixon and several ministers to capitalize on the momentum.
They created the Montgomery Improvement Association in order to manage the boycott and elected Martin Luther King Jr. as its president. The boycott made many of the whites in Montgomery angry, and some of them even became violent, bombing 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, tests that were almost impossible for them to pass. The Eisenhower Administration pressured Congress to consider new civil rights legislation in order to try to lessen racial tensions in the South and show that they were committed to the civil rights movement. In 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which stipulated that anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting could be prosecuted and established a commission to investigate voter fraud (“Civil Rights Movement”). The Civil Rights Act did not, however, make whites less prejudiced. 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. More than 200,000 people, both blacks and whites, 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, in which he talked about his hopes for equality: “And when this happens, we 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 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 protesters 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. wished for nonviolent protests and eventually obtained federal protection for another march. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, banning all literacy tests and allowing the attorney general to contest state and local poll taxes; poll taxes were later declared unconstitutional. At the end of the 1960s, two 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. died on April 4, 1968 (“Civil Rights Movement”). Their deaths caused many riots, pressuring the Johnson administration to create additional civil rights laws. On April 11, 1968, the Fair Housing Act, which prevented housing discrimination, became law and marked the last legislation created during the civil rights era (“Civil Rights Movement”). Achieving the rights and freedom that people of color enjoy in America today required a significant amount of time and hard work.
They had to fight extremely hard to earn the rights that should have been conferred from day one. Racism does still exist in America today, but it’s not nearly as pervasive as it was in the past. For the most part, people are no longer judged by the color of their skin, but by their character. America still has a long way to go before it is entirely free from racism, but significant progress has been made since the 20th century. African-Americans are no longer treated like outsiders or as though they carry a contagious disease. They can access any public facility or apply for any job for which a white person can qualify. An African-American even assumed the role of the President of the United States. During the civil rights movement, many African-Americans lost their lives, paving the way for a future for their children that would be free of racism.
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