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Harper Lee’s Depiction of Racial Inequality in America in Her Book, to Kill a Mockingbird

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In this American classic, a sleepy Southern town is rocked by the trial of a young black man accused of rape. This seemingly simple story, written in 1960, is now regarded as a hallmark of critical writing. Harper Lee writes in the themes, events, and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird allusions to various famous occurrences that capture the overall relations between black and white Americans in the years from 1900 to 1960. She incorporates these ideas because she wants to make people reconsider the morality of the decisions and become aware of the consequences, through the seemingly naiveness and innocence of fiction.

In 1931 Alabama, nine black teenagers boarded a train in Chattanooga headed for Memphis. A group of white teenagers disembarked from the train and told the sheriff that the group of black boys had assaulted them. The sheriff stopped and searched the train in Paint Rock, Alabama, and came across two white women, who told him that the same black boys had raped them, a capital offense at the time in most of the south. The boys are arrested and brought to the county jail, awaiting trial. An attempted lynch mob formed outside of the jail where the boys, waiting prosecution, were being held. A lone man, the sheriff of Scottsboro, a Matt Wann, held the crowd off until the National Guard could arrive. This crisis also happens in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus holds off a lynch mob, led by Mr. Cunningham, outside the jail where Tom Robinson is being held before his trial. Scout runs up to Atticus, sees the crowd of men assembled, and spots a familiar face, saying, “‘Hey, Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment gettin’ along?’…’Entailments are bad,’ I was advising him, when I slowly awoke to the fact that I was addressing the whole aggregation…’Let’s clear out,’ he called. ‘Let’s get going, boys'” (Lee, 174-175). The stopping of the lynch mob is only accomplished with help from Scout, whose naiveness and innocence is the only thing that saves Tom Robinson a premature death sentence, and Atticus a beating—or worse. There are several more correlations between To Kill a Mockingbird and the Scottsboro Boys. The boys were convicted and sentenced to death in their first trial. In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the prosecution brought in New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz.

In the trial’s closing statements, the defense trades one prejudice for another, saying, “Now the question in this case is this—is justice in the case going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?” The defense is preying on the rampant anti-Semitism of the jury, and of most of the South, hoping that this will make them forget about their prejudices against blacks (However, eventually the Communist Party’s support and funding of a proper defense for the Scottsboro Boys tipped the jury over the edge. Ruby Bates’ testimony that there was no rape committed against her and Victoria Price on that train car was nullified by the fact that her clothes had been bought by the Communist Party, which to the all-white, bigoted jury was tantamount to having her testimony been bought by the defense. The Communist Party was likely the most hated organizations in America at the time of the trials, in 1931. Although the trials occurred after the First Red Scare, the effects still lingered in society, and the stage was set for the second, starting in the late 1940’s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.).

The trade of prejudices also occurs in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus, when trying to defend a man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman (which is also what is happening with the Scottsboro Boys trial), tries to make the jury think of the Ewells as below everybody, even Tom Robinson. Scout describes the family to the reader, “Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings. Maycomb’s Ewells lived behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negro cabin” (193-194). The Ewells are thought of as trash. Atticus reminds everyone of the general knowledge that the Ewells are the lowest of the low, with no morals or ethics whatsoever, and even hints at several things such as sexual and physical abuse of Mayella Ewell by her father, Bob Ewell, in an effort to disprove any testimony from the Ewells. To further prove things, Mr. Ewell is asked a final question by the prosecution, Mr. Gilmer. “‘About you writing with your left hand, are you ambidextrous, Mr. Ewell?’ ‘I most positively am not, I can use one hand good as another. One hand good as another,’ he added, glaring at the defense table'” (202). Ewell shows the jury that he is uneducated and untrustworthy, the last thing they want to see.

However, Tom Robinson is still found guilty and sentenced to death. Harper Lee wants people to reconsider if their decisions were moral, as many scholars have asserted that many of the jurors knew that at least some of the Scottsboro Boys were innocent, but convicted them anyway, sentencing them to death by the notoriously unreliable electric chair for a crime many knew they did not commit. It is a blaring example of how society in the Deep South in the early-to-mid 1900’s openly encouraged racism against blacks. Lee brings up this subject through the seemingly innocence of fiction, similarly to how George Orwell criticizes totalitarianism in Animal Farm, using animals, which were usually thought of as obedient, almost to the point of mind-numbingness. The Scottsboro Boys trials made certain of the right to a fair trial for all, paved the way for racial equality in the justice system, and is known as an overall miscarriage of justice.

The case of young Emmett Till is similar to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the Scottsboro Boys because a black youth, Emmett Till, 14 years old, talked to a white woman and was penalized for it, and this time fatally, as the husband of the white woman, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam took matters into their own hands, violently. They found him at his great-uncle’s house where he was staying at while he was away from his house and family in Chicago, which consisted of one person, his mother, who had raised Emmett alone. They took him to a shack, tortured him, shot him in the head, and tossed him into the river, weighted down. His body was discovered, mutilated, a few days later. Emmett’s mother insisted upon an open-casket funeral to show people the violence of the killing and that change was needed. Thousands of people attended. This incident was one of the most prominent which sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks said that Emmett Till was her inspiration not to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back,” she said afterwards.

Also, Cassius Clay, later boxer Muhammad Ali, started a large protest (a week after the tragedy) with a friend at their school to demonstrate against the violence of racism. Additionally, Emmett Till is thought to be the inspiration for Harper Lee for the character of Tom Robinson, the man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, in To Kill a Mockingbird, and a pivotal event motivating the Civil Rights Movement. There are countless examples of this type of injustice committed against the black community, one example being the case of Jeremiah Reeves, which is less well known than that of Emmett Till, but is probably more relevant to To Kill a Mockingbird. He was a popular, respected high school senior in 1952 and was arbitrarily accused of raping a white woman. It took less than half an hour for the all-white jury to convict Reeves and sentenced him to death. He was held on death row for almost six years, until he reached the minimum age limit for the electric chair, and was executed on March 28, 1958. Protests sprung up all over the country, the main leader and organizer of these being the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a pilgrimage to Montgomery and to the Alabama state capitol building. King said in his speech to the protesters, “It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence. But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts…The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice…Let us go away devoid of bitterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue.

If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society…Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.” In his memoirs, King recounted the march, which occurred in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and brought about the height of tensions in that era.

James Folsom Sr., more commonly known as Big Jim Folsom, was the governor of Alabama for much of the 50’s and the late 40’s, and one of the first government officials to stand up for racial equality and integration in a society that openly encouraged racism and discrimination. He has drawn many comparisons to Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. He is like Atticus in the way that he is a lone man standing up for the end of discrimination and for racial equality. After Atticus loses the case, as he knows he will, he walks home.

Scout recounts, “I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up. I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle…’Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin”” (241). Atticus knows from the beginning of the trial that he is doomed to lose, but he still takes Tom Robinson’s case because his morals and ethics obligate him to. Atticus isn’t making a stand for civil rights, just for justice for all. The New Yorker, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, said, “If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.” He was a realist, and realized the extent of which to push racial equality in that time deep down south in ‘Bama, the same as Atticus. “Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence…What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama. Folsom was the same way. He knew the frailties of his fellow-Alabamians when it came to race. But he could not grasp that those frailties were more than personal—that racism had a structural dimension. After he was elected governor a second time, in 1955, Folsom organized the first inaugural ball for blacks in Alabama’s history. That’s a very nice gesture. Yet it doesn’t undermine segregation to give Negroes their own party. It makes it more palatable. Folsom’s focus on the personal was also the reason that he was blindsided by Brown. He simply didn’t have an answer to the Court’s blunt and principled conclusion that separate was not equal.” Jim Folsom strived to equalize salaries for black and white workers, and made no attempt any segregate public gatherings or organizations, making a proud and lonely stand for justice in the Jim Crow South. And Folsom, as governor of Alabama, was able to pardon many blacks unfairly put on death row, such as the case of James Wilson, a black man who was convicted and given the death sentence after a robbery of $1.95. However, famously, he chose not to intervene in the case of Jeremiah Reeves. Jim Folsom and Atticus Finch were not civil rights activists. They were simply standing up for the basic rights they believed were owed to every man, woman, and child. Folsom’s promising political career ended as governor of Alabama, in 1959. The following year, To Kill a Mockingbird was published, according to the New Yorker, a story “about one man’s lonely stand for racial justice”.

To Kill a Mockingbird is banned in many libraries and classroom across the United States for its frank discussions of issues such as race and rape. However, the book’s message could not have struck home, as it did, if it were not delivered in the seeming innocence and naiveness of fiction. If the book had been written in nonfictional form, it would have been dismissed, forgotten by everyone, never to make a splash. The book’s anonymity, the fact that it could have taken place anywhere in America not too long ago, is why the book’s impact was so profound. Although the book was written over fifty years ago, its insight into the dark corners society keeps shuttered reverberates through any society of any time. It is a book that can be read on many levels, and is still shrewdly perceptive on every one. Harper Lee reflects back on the events that changed her life when she was younger, and subconsciously or consciously, incorporates these messages into her writing.

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