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To Kill a Mockingbird: Historical Aspects

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There is strong evidence that racism has existed since the beginning of human civilization. Throughout history, the balance between human races has been unequal, proven by the countless cases of human enslavement and mistreatment through countless human civilizations. Including that of African Americans through the history of the United States. The waters of racial prejudice run deep through generations, and the only way human civilization has been able to put more emphasis on the importance of civil and human rights, is through people who are not afraid to take a stand and expose and learn from the injustices of the past. In the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee illustrates the plight of African American’s in the 1930’s onward through her character Tom Robinson, the progressive way of thinking shown through the character Atticus Finch, and inspiration from specific historical civil rights issues of the past.

Atticus Finch is a man that challenges what is considered socially acceptable in 1930s Maycomb county, and decides to reject the commonalized racist tendencies of the town. Harper Lee’s character Atticus is known for his considerably worldly and politically progressive quotes and advice. Some examples include Atticus saying this to Scout after she admits she would rather not go to school, like the Ewell children, who only go the first day of the year. Atticus explains that if Scout can learn this one rule, she can get along with anybody. “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.” (39). This quote is incredibly significant to Scout’s development as a character, which also symbolizes the future generations stepping away from deeply rooted racist ideals. As people begin to sympathize with the injustices in the racial persecutions of the past, the more society frowns upon racism. This quote also introduces one of the novel’s major themes: the ability to understand and sympathize with people being crucial to “getting along” with others. For Atticus, this skill is very vital to being a lawyer, in his heart he always knows what’s right. This aspect of his character is especially evident during the Tom Robinson trial.

This is a quote from Atticus explaining to Jem and Scout why he is unbothered by what the townspeople have to say about him. “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” Atticus teaches them that everyone has their own individual rights to their opinions and they should be respected. He also essentially explains that before people can judge another they must have no doubt about one’s personal views. One should not accuse another of a crime without solid reason or evidence to back up Atticus also says that a person’s conscience does not abide by majority rule, if an opinion or view on something is widespread with generations of political history, people should not conform without listening to one’s conscience. If something is obviously wrong, it is best to do something to change it instead of going along with it. This lesson is clearly applicable to racial prejudice, both in the novel and in the real world. One of the main reasons racism has survived throughout history

In this scene, Atticus is giving a spirited response to the glaring racial prejudice and injustice that Tom Robinson is facing. “Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.” ( Lee 273)

The “lie” that Atticus is referring to is the idea that all African Americans are basically “immoral beings.” Atticus exposes the court for knowingly allowing such a blatant injustice to occur in this case and in cases similar to Robinson’s. The evidence clearly proves Robinson innocent, but the deeply ingrained racial prejudice has named him guilty even before the trial began. Atticus has always expressed the importance of protecting those who are essentially defenseless, this is why he takes the case knowing his chances of success are incredibly slim. The dark and evil characteristics of humans are not exclusive to one particular race, all human beings can be immoral. This is why Atticus opposes the court, they are essentially sentencing an innocent man to death because of harsh and incorrect predetermined beliefs against a race of people. Atticus knows that the court is aware of this, and encourages them to find the empathy and courage to do what is right, despite what has become expected.

Harper Lee’s character Tom Robinson is considered a prime example of the unjust persecution of African Americans, specifically in the 1930’s, though applicable in any period of time inside the United States. “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 119). Miss Maudie explains why Atticus was so clear that Scout and Jem were not allowed to shoot at Mockingbirds, and even calls it a “sin” which is uncharacteristic for him. The mockingbird is completely harmless, so hurting it without being provoked is not right, much like Tom Robinson, a man who is cripplied in the left arm, making it impossible for him to commit the crime he is convicted for. This essentially reveals that the rape allegation against Tom is purely based on prejudice because of his skin color.

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“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”

This is a quote from Atticus. He is explaining to Jem and Scout that everyone has their own individual rights to their opinions and they should be respected. He also essentially explains that before one can judge another they must have no doubt about their own views. One should not accuse another without solid evidence to back it up. Atticus also says that a person’s conscience should not abide by majority rule. If an opinion or view on something is incredibly widespread and common, and has generations of political history, one should not conform without listening to their conscience. If something is obviously wrong, it is best to do something instead of going along with it. Atticus applies this logic to his work. He took the case because he knew his conscious would eat at him until he does what he feels is right. This is why he explains he still has to “live with myself,” he knows he has to do something about the unfairness of Tom Robinson’s trial.

Exploring the similarities between Tom Robinson’s case and that of Emmitt Till’s: a young man who was ruthlessly murdered in Money, Mississippi, provides many comparisons, including these: “The two cases are linked by numerous similarities of circumstance. Both cases combine the dual icons of the ‘black rapist’ and concomitant fear of black male sexuality with mythologized ‘vulnerable and sacred’ Southern womanhood.” (Chura 5) Tom Robinson was accused of raping Mayella Ewell and Emmitt Till was accused of whistling at and offending a white women at a grocery store. “Both cases are heard by all-white, all-male juries consisting primarily of Southern farmers.” (Chura 5) Emmitt Till’s and Tom Robinson’s cases were both heard by an all white jury, that happened to occur in the South, where racial prejudice appeared to be more prominent. “Both cases result in verdicts that preserve tenaciously held racial doctrine of the white power structure at the expense of justice and in the face of over-whelming contradictory evidence.” (Chura 5) In Tom Robinson’s case, his crippled left arm would have made it impossible for him to give Mayella the injuries she had, in fact, the evidence made Mr. Ewell a more probable suspect. Despite the clear innocence of both Tom Robinson and Emmitt Till were punished solely because of the color of their skin. “In both cases, a courageous attorney and a fair-minded judge tacitly coop crate in a futile attempt to ensure justice.” (Chura 5) In Emmitt Till’s case, Gerald Chatnam took on the case as his attorney, and much like Atticus, tried to convince the jury to look past prejudice and see the solid facts of injustice. Both attorneys took what was considered a socially unacceptable stand against the ideals of the racially prejudiced tendencies of the 1950s Southern United States. It is plausible that Harper Lee drew aspects of the Emmitt Till case when creating the fictional one of Tom Robinson. The case occurred recently when To Kill a Mockingbird was written, so the civil rights movement was just starting to form due to widespread outrage against the Emmitt Till’s guilty verdict.

According to an article detailing the roots and psychological effects of racism, author Faeze Rezazade describes racism as “the unequal power relations that grow from the sociopolitical domination of one race by another.” (Rezazade 2293) The author also suggests that racism is a natural trait in human behavior, stating “racism has existed among the groups of people since the very beginning of people’s communication and therefore can be considered a part of human nature.” (Rezazade 2293) Here the article introduces the concept of a “double consciousness” which is when an African American begins to see themselves from the perspective of the Jim Crow American idea. Also known as a “false self-consciousness that obtains among African Americans when they observe and judge themselves from the perspective of a white, Jim Crow American world.” (Rezazade 2294) Racism becomes extremely toxic when a persecuted group of people start to believe the offensive and incorrect preconception that they are inferior to any specific race. This false self-consciousness essentially represents the main goal of racism, which is the domination of one race by another. The author then makes a connection to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, describing the racist tendencies of Alabama in the 1930s, all except for Atticus, who emphasizes the importance of equality.

“So a plausible concern becomes how in a society that ostensibly emphasizes egalitarianism, can a milieu exist which allows police malfeasance to thrive?” (Chaney) This quote is essentially asking how in today’s political climate, where equality and fair treatment of all people is emphasised, can an environment still exist that allows racial prejudice to occur. When considering the statistics and surveys conducted on American citizens, it becomes clear that this is a plausible situation. The definition of police brutality is not limited to harsh legal treatment on African Americans, it is generally defined as “the use of excessive physical force or verbal assault and psychological intimidation.” (Chaney 482) In recent years, however, upon hearing the term police brutality, people tend to think of African American’s being harassed and persecuted by police officers. Recent studies suggest that departments like NYPD have become better behaved due to increased race and gender diversity, although the statistics still stand that Black people are more likely to be victims of police brutality. Surveys reveal that 89% of African American’s feel that the criminal is biased against black people. These studies are fairly recent, most being conducted in 2009 onward. This is a clear example of racism still persisting even after the main years of the civil rights movement. Even if it is accidental, the effects of racism on future generations has resonated somewhat subconsciously. When boiled down to the main component, Racism in modern day appears to be influenced by past ideals. “In a society wherein the dominant group overwhelmingly approves of police performance willing to do anything substantive to curtail police brutality against black males.” (Chaney 484)

Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960, early into the civil rights movement. The historical influence that Lee uses is unmistakable when considering the many similarities between Tom Robinson and Emmitt Till, whose case occurred almost ten years before To Kill a Mockingbird was published. Racism has existed for ages, and still exists today, and most likely will for the foreseeable future. However, human civilization has made significant steps towards eradicating it completely. In these times when the Earth is depending on the human race to save it from dying, the time is coming for humans to forgive the mistakes of the past and to stop living in the past.

Works cited

  1. Chaney, Cassandra, and Ray V. Robertson. ‘Racism and police brutality in America.’ Journal of African American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2013, p. 480+. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.
  2. Chura, Patrick. ‘Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmet Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird.’ The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, p. 1. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 14 Feb. 2020.
  3. Rezazade, Faeze, et al. ‘Negro’s ‘double consciousness’ in To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 6, no. 12, 2016, p. 2292+. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.
  4. Bloom, Harold. To Kill a Mockingbird. Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.

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