One Book, One Chicago Fall 2001
Historical Context for To Kill a Mockingbird
On March 25, 1931, a freight train was stopped in Paint Rock, a small town in Alabama. Nine young African American men who had been riding the rails from Tennessee to Alabama were arrested. Two white women, one underage, accused the men of raping them while on the train.
Within a month, one man was found guilty and sentenced to death. A series of sensational trials followed based on the testimony of the older woman, a known prostitute. The prostitute was attempting to avoid prosecution under the Mann Act, which prohibited taking a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, like prostitution.
Although none of the men were executed, a number of them remained on death row for many years. The last defendant was released in 1950.
There are several striking parallels between Tom Robinson’s trial in To Kill a Mockingbird and the Scottsboro trials:
|The Scottsboro Trials||Tom Robinson’s Trial|
|Took place in the 1930s||Occurs in the 1930s|
|Took place in northern Alabama||Takes place in southern Alabama|
|Began with a charge of rape made by white women against African American men||Begins with a charge of rape made by a white woman against an African American man|
|The poor white status of accusers was a critical issue||The poor white status of Mayella is a critical issue|
|A central figure was a heroic judge, James E. Horton, a member of the Alabama Bar who overturned a guilty jury verdict against African American men.||A central figure is Atticus, lawyer, legislator and member of the Alabama Bar, who defends an African American man.|
|This judge went against public sentiment in trying to protect the rights of the African American defendants.||Atticus arouses anger in the community in trying to defend Tom Robinson.|
|The first juries failed to include any African Americans, a situation that caused the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the guilty verdict.||The verdict is rendered by a jury of poor white residents of Old Sarum.|
|The jury ignored evidence; for example, that the women suffered no injuries.||The jury ignores evidence; for example, that Tom has a useless left arm.|
|Attitudes about Southern women and poor whites complicated the trial.||Attitudes about Southern women and poor whites complicate the trial.|
Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird during the beginning of the civil rights era (from about 1955 to 1958). Alabama was very much in the news at this time with the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King’s rise to leadership and Autherine Lucy’s attempt to attend graduate school at the University of Alabama.
Lee was well-known on the University of Alabama campus as editor of the politically satirical student newspaper. After graduation, she entered law school, leaving one semester short of receiving a law degree. Lee’s book was published in 1960, a time of tumultuous events and racial strife as the struggle in the civil rights movement grew violent and spread into cities across the nation. The novel climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list as it began to make its remarkable impact on a divided nation.
To Kill a Mockingbird in the Civil Rights Era: A Chronology
- In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., the decision widely regarded as having sparked the modern civil rights era, the Supreme Court rules deliberate public school segregation illegal, effectively overturning “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.
- Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago, is beaten, shot and lynched by whites after allegedly whistling at a white woman in a store in Mississippi.
- In Alabama, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white man, precipitating the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Autherine Lucy receives a letter granting permission to enroll at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She is the first African American admitted to the state school.
- In January 1956, following the successful Montgomery bus boycott, King’s home is bombed by local segregationists.
- Motions are filed in U.S. District Court calling for an end to bus segregation.
- Violence erupts on the campus of the University of Alabama and in the streets of Tuscaloosa, continuing for three days.
- Autherine Lucy is forced to flee the University of Alabama campus; the university’s Board of Trustees bars her from campus.
- Autherine Lucy ordered by the courts to be re-admitted to the University of Alabama, only to be expelled by Board of Trustees.
- Montgomery bus boycott ends in victory December 21, after the city announces it will comply with a November Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation on buses illegal.
- African Americans board the first desegregated buses in Montgomery.
- In September, federal troops are sent to Little Rock, Ark., to protect nine African American students at Central High School from white mobs trying to block the school’s integration and to enforce court-ordered desegregation of schools.
- Alaska and Hawaii are admitted as states. Hawaii, the 50th state, elects Hiram Fong (of Chinese ancestry) and Daniel Inouye (of Japanese ancestry) to represent the state in Congress, the first two Asian Americans to serve in that body.
- In Greensboro, N.C., the first lunch counter sit-in by four African American college students inspires more throughout the South.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is published.
- James Meredith becomes the first African American student admitted to the University of Mississippi.
- Freedom Riders begin arriving in the deep South to test new Interstate Commerce Commission regulations and court orders barring segregation in interstate transportation. Violence necessitates the deployment of federal troops.
- Violence erupts at the University of Mississippi over integration.
- The United Farm Workers Union, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, organizes to win bargaining power for Mexican American agricultural workers.
- The film To Kill a Mockingbird is released.
- Dogs and power hoses are directed at peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala.
- Civil rights leader Medgar W. Evers is murdered at his home in Jackson, Miss.
- Over a quarter of a million people participate in the March on Washington on August 28 and hear Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.
- A Birmingham church is bombed on September 15, killing four African American girls attending Sunday school: Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Adie Mae Collins, all 14.
- Civil rights workers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman are kidnapped and murdered near Philadelphia, Miss., by white law enforcement officials and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
- On July 2, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
- March for Voting Rights is held in Selma, Ala.
- The Voting Rights Act passes and is signed into law on August 6, effectively ending literacy tests and a host of other obstacles used to disenfranchise African Americans and other minorities.