Critical Essays Racial Relations in the Southern United States


Jim Crow Laws

The racial concerns that Harper Lee addresses in To Kill a Mockingbird began long before her story starts and continued long after. In order to sift through the many layers of prejudice that Lee exposes in her novel, the reader needs to understand the complex history of race relations in the South.

Many states — particularly in the South — passed "Jim Crow" laws (named after a black, minstrel show character), which severely limited how African Americans could participate in society. The U.S. Supreme Court paved the ways for these laws in 1883 when the court ruled that it couldn't enforce the 14th Amendment at the individual level. The first Jim Crow law appeared in 1890; the laws increased from there and lasted until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Many whites at the time believed that instead of progressing as a race, blacks were regressing with the abolition of slavery. Southern churches frequently upheld this racist thinking, which also helped give the Jim Crow laws some of their power.

Ironically, African American churches were as likely to uphold the Jim Crow laws as white churches were. The continued oppression of one group over another is largely psychological. The dominant group first uses force to obtain their power. Slowly, the group being oppressed begins to feel hopeless that the situation can change and begins to unwittingly buy into the oppression as the norm. Before the civil rights movement gained momentum, many African American churches concentrated on helping their congregations deal with the oppression rather than trying to end it.

Jim Crow laws extended into almost every facet of public life. The laws stipulated that blacks use separate entrances into public buildings, have separate restrooms and drinking fountains, and sit in the back of trains and buses. Blacks and whites were not allowed to be served food in the same room in a restaurant, play pool together, share the same prisons, or be buried in the same cemeteries. African Americans couldn't play professional sports with white teammates or serve in the armed forces with white soldiers. Black children were educated in separate schools. Black barbers couldn't wait on white female clients, and white female nurses couldn't attend to black male patients. Not every law applied in every state, but the Jim Crow laws were demoralizing and far reaching, all in the name of protecting white culture and power.

Interracial Marriage

At the time Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, white people had control over the communities they lived in, but many members of the elite class feared that African Americans would make inroads into the white world by marrying and having children with whites. Thus, interracial marriage was outlawed in many states.

Biracial children were referred to as "mulatto," a word derived from "mule," because, like mules, these children were thought to be the offspring of an unnatural union. Ironically, biracial children born to black mothers were not seen as a threat to white superiority, so most people looked the other way when a white man — like Dolphus Raymond in the novel — chose to marry a black woman.

The fear of interracial unions reached its apex in a widely held, unrealistic fear that African American men would rape and impregnate white women as a means of penetrating white society and, worse, white power.

This sort of crime virtually never happened. However, the frenzy that characterized the "rape complex" led to drastic and deadly results: Lynching became the primary means of dealing with any accusation of rape of a white woman was pinned on a black man. When the mob comes to lynch Tom Robinson at the jail, Lee alludes to the reality of black men who lived on the receiving end of this treatment.

Scottsboro Trials

Lee may have gotten the inspiration for Tom Robinson's case from the Scottsboro Trials of 1931, which were a result of the ideals and laws discussed in the preceding sections. In the Scottsboro case, two white women accused nine black men of raping them as they traveled from Tennessee to Alabama. Both of the women, the nine black men, and two white men hopped a freight car and headed south. (During the Great Depression, jobs were scarce, and the unemployed frequently rode from place to place in empty boxcars in search of work. Although unemployment among blacks was much higher — and in spite of the Jim Crow laws — blacks and whites ultimately competed for the same jobs, a fact that whites greatly resented.)

During the train ride the two groups of men fought, and the white men were forced off the train. When the rest of the hobos arrived in Alabama, they were arrested for vagrancy. Both women were of questionable background; one was a known prostitute. They used the ideal of Southern womanhood as their "Get Out of Jail Free Card" and accused the nine African Americans of rape.

Although a doctor's examination revealed no signs of forced intercourse or any sort of struggle, eight of the nine men were sentenced to death. The Supreme Court ordered a second trial for the Scottsboro "boys," during which one of the women recanted her testimony, denying that she or the other woman had been raped. Nonetheless, the eight men were convicted a second time. The appeals process continued for several years. Some of the men escaped prison, others were paroled. The last man was released from prison in 1950; one of the men received a pardon in 1976.

Because of deep-rooted anti-black sentiment, two white women with skeletons in their own closets were able to deprive eight men of several years of their lives.

Civil Rights Movement

The black community had shown spurts of enthusiasm in pursuing civil rights since the end of slavery. By the 1950s, however, the latest interest in the civil rights movement had lost a good deal of steam. Many African Americans seemed resigned to accepting the Jim Crow laws and living within the existing system. Educated blacks in Alabama were looking for something to rekindle the interest in civil rights amongst the black community. They found that "something" in a woman named Rosa Parks.

On a December day in 1955, Parks boarded a full Montgomery, Alabama bus, tired after a long day's work. She sat at the back of the bus's white section. When a white person boarded, the bus driver ordered Parks and several other black riders to move, and she refused. Her subsequent arrest mobilized the African American community into a yearlong bus boycott that ultimately ended segregation on public transportation. Parks was an educated woman who was concerned about the plight of Southern blacks. Although she did not board the bus intending to take a stand, when the opportunity arose, she accepted the challenge.

When the Supreme Court overturned Alabama's segregation laws regarding public transportation, the civil rights movement gained momentum. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Montgomery, Alabama minister, rose as the recognized leader of the movement. Several women worked behind the scenes organizing the boycott and keeping the movement alive.

Concurrent with the Montgomery bus boycott, another civil rights issue came to the forefront at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There, a young black woman named Autherine Lucy enrolled in an all-white school. Because of racial tensions, the Board of Trustees expelled her from the campus after only a few months; however, the stage was set for more skirmishes with civil rights' issues. (Lucy received her master's degree from the Tuscaloosa campus in 1992.)

In 1957, schools in Little Rock, Arkansas underwent desegregation. Resentment and resistance ran so high and the threat of violence was so great that federal troops were sent to maintain order.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in the midst of these developments. Her story was informed not only by the laws and attitudes that were part of her youth and her culture, but also by the civil rights movement. The civil rights struggle continues today at various levels, making To Kill a Mockingbird a timeless novel.