Reading into Mockingbird is a series of posts about the historical themes in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the Reading into History Teen Summer’s 2015 read. Through these posts, we will provide historical background to enhance your reading of the book and your participation in our Goodreads discussions and teach-in event at the Museum on September 20.
“Cry about the simple hell people give other people—without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.” (Chapter 20)
Before and after the eugenics craze, something kept black southerners from achieving economic and civic equality. That something was Jim Crow. Jim Crow was the name of a theatrical character developed by Thomas Dartmouth “T.D. Daddy” Rice in the 1830s. Legend has it that Rice saw an enslaved man sing the song “Jump Jim Crow” while doing a jig somewhere in the South and decided to build an act around it. Rice blackened his face and performed as an exaggerated, stereotyped composite of an enslaved African American. Many copied Rice and this type of performance became known as minstrelsy. Minstrel shows were popular entertainment for whites throughout the second half of the 19th century in all parts of the country. The character of Jim Crow helped cement stereotypes about African Americans, particularly in the South, as unintelligent, lazy, and light-hearted. These stereotypes comforted southern whites and helped them justify slavery. The Jim Crow character became so pervasive, it spread to other forms of entertainment, such as the game for children pictured below:
After the Civil War, “Jim Crow” took on a new meaning: the term was adopted to refer to a system of laws and unwritten codes meant to keep newly freed slaves from fully participating in American society. Along with keeping African Americans from frequenting the same restaurants, movie theaters, schools, etc. as white Americans, Jim Crow laws also kept African Americans out of the positions of power. The educational organization Facing History and Ourselves has made an excellent short film explaining how Jim Crow worked in the South from Reconstruction through the Great Depression. Check it out here:
We see Jim Crow rules play out in many ways in To Kill A Mockingbird, most obviously with regard to Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a poor, white woman named Mayella Ewell. When Tom takes the witness stand, Atticus Finch, his lawyer, draws the true story out of him: that Mayella made sexual advances toward Tom that he spurned. Mayella’s abusive father, Bob, witnessed everything and then beat Mayella in a rage. Readers are meant to understand that Bob Ewell’s rage stemmed from Mayella breaking the Jim Crow sanctity of white, southern womanhood. In telling the truth on the witness stand, Tom makes a further transgression against this code. He deigns to feel sorry for Mayella. Prosecutor Mr. Gilmer draws Tom out in the following scene from Chapter 19.
“You did all this chopping and work from sheer goodness, boy?”
“Tried to help her, I says.”
Mr. Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury. “You’re a mighty good fellow, it seems— did all this for not one penny?”
“Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em—”
“You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?” Mr. Gilmer seemed ready to rise to the ceiling.
The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. But the damage was done. Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson’s answer. Mr. Gilmer paused a long time to let it sink in.
Tom’s mistake was in regarding himself above Mayella. The townspeople’s disapproval is evidence that, under Jim Crow, even the most honorable black person should feel himself below even the most degraded white person. The community seeks to correct this reordering of the racial hierarchy, eventually by convicting innocent Tom Robinson, but not before attempting to lynch him.
Between 1877 and 1950, 242 African Americans were lynched in Alabama. Facing History and Ourselves has created another excellent video on The Origins of Lynching Culture in the United States. Watch to learn what lynching means, and how it was used as a violent tool against African Americans in the Jim Crow South to maintain a white supremacist society.
The attempted lynching of Tom Robinson is one of the most powerful, and yet most incredible scenes in To Kill A Mockingbird. Throughout the novel, Atticus and Scout represent seasoned and naïve versions of human reason, which, according to Lee, are antithetical to racism. As Atticus stands watch over the incarcerated Tom, a reason-less lynch mob gathers to murder the prisoner. Atticus gently tries to spark reason in these men, asking his oft-repeated “Do you really think so?” which causes much soul-searching in his children. But these men are so determined. They have even planned ahead and distracted the town sheriff with a fake emergency elsewhere. The mob disperses before the lynching takes place only because Scout, Jem, and Dill arrive on the scene. Scout innocently calls out to a face she recognizes, Walter Cunningham’s, and through her desperate attempts at conversation, reminds him of his and her families’ shared experiences. She reminds him of his own humanity and reasonable nature, sucking the wind out of the irrational, hateful, murderous act he and his compatriots are poised to commit.
One would like to believe that some or all lynchings could have been avoided through a child’s unwitting protest. However, given the prevalence of children in photographs of lynchings, it seems the opposite happened most of the time. White southerners actually had an incentive to show their children lynchings and teach them how to lynch. Unless children learned the complicated, senseless violence of Jim Crow early on, they might not internalize and maintain it. In an attempt to win more white supporters to their cause, the NAACP asked people to consider the feelings of white children who viewed lynchings in a 1935 pamphlet:
Do not look at the Negro. His earthly problems are ended.
Instead, look at the seven WHITE children who gaze at this gruesome spectacle.
Is it horror or gloating on the face of the neatly dressed seven-year-old girl on the right?
Is the tiny four-year-old on the right old enough, one wonders,
to comprehend the barbarism her elders have perpetuated?
There are many other instances in To Kill A Mockingbird where Jim Crow rules are referenced, followed, and violated. Where do you see the Jim Crow policies playing out in the novel? What do you think of Aunt Alexandra’s teatime conversations with Maycomb women? Or Calpurnia taking Jem and Scout to her church? Or Dolphus Raymond pretending to be an alcoholic to explain why he chooses to be in a relationship with a black woman? Head over to our Goodreads page to discuss how the twisted ethics of this era play out in the novel.