Contextual Factors that Influenced Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

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Slavery is the act or practice of owning slaves and making them work very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation. Slavery was abolished in 1890 however this led to segregation in the early and mid-twentieth century. Scout, the narrator is able to bring out the hardships the slaves go through during the trial of Tom Robinson. They are depicted as liars and criminals with no chance of being justifiably heard. “It just shows you, that Robinson was legally married, they say he kept himself clean, went to church and all that, but when it comes down to the line the veneer’s might thin. N***** always comes out in them.” (Page 265, Chapter, 25) The slaves that lived in the southern states of America often worked on the large cotton plantations or farms that populated preponderance of the area. Workers were unable to leave the property on which they worked on without permission from their ‘owner’. Furthermore, they were not free to make any decision of their own without their ‘owners’ approval. Ergo, they had no freedom whatsoever. Continuing from the segregation in the early and mid-twentieth century, segregation is the act or state of setting someone or something apart from others. More specifically to To Kill a Mockingbird, segregation was the practice of enforcing separation of different racial groups that are part of a country, community or establishment. “Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal.” (Page 226, Chapter 20) However this was not evident in the book To Kill a Mockingbird in many cases. It can be deduced from To Kill a Mockingbird and other sources that the racial oppression escalated across United States at the time the book was written. “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal-there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.” (Page 227, Chapter 20) It was suggested numerous times throughout the book that “[Maycomb’s] courts are the great levelers” (Page 227, Chapter 20) and that “Tom had a good chance of going free, or at least of having a new trial.” (Page 241, Chapter 23) This didn’t prove to be the case as people soon began to realize “Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened he mouth and screamed.” (Page 266, Chapter 25) It soon became apparent to characters from To Kill a Mockingbird like Scout and Jem that the segregation in the world was far worse than they thought. “[It’s] ugly, but those are the facts of life.” (Page 243, Chapter 23) Scout, whilst narrating, often observed that black people were kept separate from white people in many instances. For example, the black inhabitants of Maycomb lived in their own ‘quarter’, an area of housing estate that was generally put aside for black people. It can be reasoned that segregation often did not mean equality either. The housing black people occupied were usually rundown and the schools for black children were not very well equipped either, with many of the textbooks being second hand or out of date.


The Jim Crow Laws were a selection of laws that supported the segregation of blacks and whites in many southern American states, having been referred to as early as the 1890s. These laws legalized and supported discrimination in such issues such as bank practices, voting systems and school and housing segregation. Examples of Jim Crow Laws in action include the physical segregation of public schools, public parks and beaches, and public transportation. It was also during this time that drinking fountains, restrooms, and restaurants were segregated, requiring ‘blacks’ to use separate facilities. One of the most notable moments in American history provided an example of Jim Crow Laws being disobeyed, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bust to a white man, as required the law at the time. Parks’ display of civil disobedience in 1955 spurned the Civil Rights Movement, leading activists into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This was ultimately triumphant in desegregating bus transportation after a year’s worth of the group’s fervent efforts. Many times throughout the book Atticus contradicts himself when he said “[Maycomb’s] courts are the great levelers” (Page 227, Chapter 20) This proved to not be true as “Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case.” (Page 266, Chapter 25) It soon became obvious that “Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened he mouth and screamed” (Page 266, Chapter 25) as “In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins.” (Page 243, Chapter 23) Atticus strongly believed that “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a court-room, be he any colour of the rainbow.” (Page 243, Chapter 23) The Jim Crow Laws did not state or go through how the precession of the court should be conducted nor come to any conclusions close to that therefore should not have been applied to the context of a trial. Unsurprisingly however, it still had a major effect on an outcome of a case where a black person was involved. “There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads-they couldn’t be fair if they tried.”

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At the beginning of the 1930s, more than 15 million Americans were unemployed and at stakes of losing their homes. The president at the time, Herbert Hoover did not do much to alleviate the crisis. “Patience and self-reliance,” he argued, “were all Americans needed to get them through this passing incident in our national lives.” More specifically, Alabama, the state that “was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background” (Page 18, Chapter 2) was the seventh poorest state in the country. This isn’t surprising as the Great Depression as well as the Dust Bowl Drought hit Alabama quite substantially. Being in the south, Alabama also had laws that legalized the segregation of African Americans as well. From all the reasons above, it can be inferred that it was not a good time to be in Alabama, especially if you were colored. But in 1932, Americans elected a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who pledged to use the power of the federal government to make Americans’ lives better. The book is set between the summer of 1932 and Halloween night of 1935 which meant they were already through the worst part of the economic fluctuation. Scout even adds herself that there is a 'vague optimism' (Page 6, Chapter 1) for some people because they have been told that 'they had nothing to fear but fear itself,' (Page 6, Chapter 1) which happen to be the famous words of President Franklin Roosevelt.


The Ku Klux Klan was one of the most (and still is) notorious racist groups originating from Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865 (after the civil war). The book To Kill a Mockingbird vividly pictures the memories of the Ku Klux Klan atrocities. At the time the book was set, the members of the KKK influenced local governments, trying to enforce the standards of their community as a legal guidance. The “Ku Klux got after some Catholics one time.” (Page 161, Chapter 15) and managed to take many lives with their other bombings, public lynching’s and attacks as well. Fortunately, they overall failed to make their community standards the everyday norm but continue to be a part of an extreme right wing movement protesting openly on America’s streets in spite of Atticus’ confidentially stating that “The Ku Klux’s gone, and it’ll never come back” (Page 162, Chapter 15) He thought that “Way back about nineteen twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. (Page 161, Chapter 15)

As mentioned previously, the Ku Klux Klan bombed, publicly lynched and attacked innocent people just because the happened to not follow the strict regulations the Ku Klux Klan followed. In the novel, there was no direct presence of the lynching. However, the influence can be discerned. Historians broadly agree that lynching was a method of social and racial control which were meant to terrorize black Americans into submission, thus forcing them into an inferior racial caste position. It grew in popularity and soon became widely practiced in the southern states of America from around1877 to around 1950. In many cases, law enforcement officers abetted and aided the many mobs by leaving black inmate’s jail cell unguarded giving time for the mob to kill them before any legal defense or trial could even begin. A typical public lynching would typically involve false accusations, an arrest and the assembly of the lynch mob. Furthermore, lynching was frequently committed with public displays and drew large crows of white families. In the South, an estimated two or three blacks were lynched each week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


The Great Depression is known as the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. At the end of the 1920s and just before the Great Depression, America boasted the largest economy in the whole world. The main cause/factor of the economic crisis was the stock market crash. Other factors included investing too much money intending to expand to its breaking point, rising bank loans, an agriculture crisis and higher interest rates. This meant that they were unable to fuel the expansion no longer which consequently made the slowdown inevitable. The economic downturn that lasted from 1929 to 1939 had varying amounts of after-math for different families. “The Cunningham’s are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them the hardest” (Page 23, Chapter2) whilst “no economic fluctuations changed [the Ewells] status - people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in depths of a depression.” (Page 187, Chapter 17) “Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells,” (Page 187, Chapter 17) “they lived behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negro cabin” (Page 187, Chapter 17) and therefore did not have much to lose. Professional people such as Atticus “were poor because the farmers were poor.” (Page 23, Chapter 2) Scout described Maycomb as a place where “There was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with.” (Page 6, Chapter 1) This suggests that the Great Depression took quite a firm hold of Alabama especially. Scout later that there is a 'vague optimism' (Page 6, Chapter 1) for some because people have been told that 'they had nothing to fear but fear itself,' (Page 6, Chapter 1) which were undoubtedly the famous words of America’s 32nd president, Roosevelt.


Scout describes Maycomb as 'a tired old town' (Page 5, Chapter 1) that is very hot in the summer, making the day oppressive for black dogs and bony mules who are 'hitched to Hoover carts.' (Page 5, Chapter 1) This quote at first does not seem noteworthy but grasps quite a lot of meaning once properly understood. During the Great Depression, many people went unemployed and therefore lost their homes meaning they didn’t have anywhere to live. People who were homeless and/or extremely poor would go live in one of many shantytowns. These shantytowns were named Hoovervilles after the 31st American president, Herbert Hoover. The term was coined by Charles Michelson, publicity chief of the Democratic National Committee. As well as naming shantytowns after the president, people started to name other objects after Hoover as a way of derogating him. Herbert Hoover was widely blamed for the sudden onset due to ignoring signs of an economical crisis. Such examples of these items include ‘Hoover Blankets’ (newspaper to protect people from the cold and rain), ‘Hoover flags’ (pants with pockets turned inside out to show the lack of money) and ‘Hoover wagons’ (cars pulled by horses because owners simply could not afford to pay for gas). Hoovervilles, although not mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird, is still indirectly connected to the novel. The very hot summers were probably referencing the dust bowl drought whereas the ‘bony mule’ is most likely referencing the Great Depression as it suggests that the owner of the mule does not have enough money to spare for the mule’s food. Additionally, the hoover cart refers to the Great Depression as well as the many Hoovervilles.


Of all droughts that have occurred in the United States, the consecutive droughts of the 1930s were widely considered to be the ‘drought of the record’ for the entire nation. The drought event of the 1930s is often referred to as if it was just one episode, but it was several disastrous events occurring in rapid succession that affected regions were not able to recover adequately before another drought began. Due to low crop prices ad high machinery costs, more submarginal lands were put into production. Farmers also started to abandon soil conservation practices. The drought eventually destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of small farmers. The term Dust Bowl was coined by an AP reporter, Robert Geiger in 1935. Geiger used it to describe the drought-affected south-central United States in the aftermath of numerous dust storms. Although the term ‘dust bowl’ technically refers to southeaster Colorado, the western third of Kansas, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle and northeastern New Mexico, the Dust Bowl has come to symbolize the hardships of the entire nation during the 1930s. In the county of Maycomb, “rainy weather the streets turned to red slop.” (Page 5, Chapter 1) The fact that Maycomb does not have updated facilities, roads, and sidewalks illuminates the effects of the Depression and a lack of social progress. As well as this, the wizened and dusty summers most likely played a significant role in making the ground as grotty as Scout describes it as. Compared to a normal summer to the summer of the 1930s, “it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square” (Page 5, Chapter 1)


Harper Lee was born on the 28th of April in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Alabama in many ways like Maycomb, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s father was a lawyer, just like Atticus Finch, the narrator and protagonist of the books father. Furthermore, Harper Lee drew the inspiration for the character Dill from her childhood friend and future novelist Truman Capote. It can be inferred that To Kill a Mockingbird was intended to portray not Harper Lee’s childhood home but rather a nonspecific Southern town. “People are people anywhere you put them,” she declared in an interview in 1961. Unsurprisingly, the book’s setting and characters were not the only aspects of the story shaped by events that legitimately occur in Lee’s childhood. Harper Lee insists that To Kill a Mockingbird was not autobiographical, but there is no denying parallels can be drawn between To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee’s very own life. When Lee was just five years old, nine young black men were accused of raping two white women near Alabama. After a series of prolonged, publicized and bitter trials, five of the nine young men were sentenced to illegitimately long jail sentences. “There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads-they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins.” It has been said by lawyers and American citizens alike that the sentences were motivated by racial prejudice. It was also surmised that the women who claimed to have been raped by the men were lying. Their claims became more dubious as the trials and appeals continued. Therefore, there can be little doubt that the Scottsboro Case served as a seed for the trial that stands at the heart of Lee’s novel. Calpurnia is so much more to the family than just the African American housekeeper she is. She acts as a mother figure to both Scout and Jem, as she practically raised them ever since their mother’s death. Along with Miss Maudie, Calpurnia is a strong, positive female influence in Jem & Scout’s lives. Inevitably, Lee had an African American housekeeper when she was a child and probably drew inspiration for the character Calpurnia from her household’s housekeeper.


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Contextual Factors that Influenced Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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