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To Kill a Mockingbird (History / Background)


The Great Depression: This story takes place in the state of Alabama, in the southeastern part of the United States, during the Great Depression (a period, in the late 1920s to early 1940s, of severe poverty, high unemployment, and considerable financial woe, particularly among farmers in rural areas of the South). World War I had ended 15 years earlier, and the Second World War had not yet begun. The President of the United States at that time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had drafted an extensive economic recovery program called The New Deal. Roosevelt was known for his public radio addresses, referred to as fireside chats, which he held frequently in order to restore the publics faith in a better future. These radio addresses did a great deal to instill a sense of cautious optimism in the otherwise downtrodden people of that time. During a particularly famous radio address on March 13, 1933, Roosevelt declared to the nation, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. This quote is referred to briefly on page 6 of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Southern Culture and the U.S. Civil War: Many Southerners see themselves as having a unique set of cultural characteristics which set them apart from Yankees (Northerners). These differences give way to what is called Southern Pride, which is, basically, a shared sense of pride at their exceptional heritage (group identity). Of course, this pride may also be extended include shared mannerisms and cultural values. Southerners are known for being more courteous and hospitable than Northerners. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), which was fought between the North and the South, the southern states (also called the Confederate States) wished to secede from the Union (in other words, to form their own country, independent from the U.S.) for a variety of reasons, but chiefly because of the issue of slavery. The cultures of the North and the South differed vastly in their ideas regarding slavery. Anti-slavery abolitionists (such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau), as well as members of the Republican Party (including President Abraham Lincoln), pushed tirelessly for legislation which would lead to the end of slavery nationwide. This, however, would have damaged the economic vitality of plantations in the South which depended on the slave labor to keep costs low and profits high. Southerners saw measures to end slavery as an attempt by the federal government (which was dominated by the North) to impose Northern cultural values upon the South, and to further infringe upon the sovereign rights of states (particularly those of the South). They believed each state legislature should be able to determine, for itself, its own laws concerning slavery. Therefore, they sought to split off and form their own Confederate States of America. Of course, the North was strongly opposed to the idea of secession. Tensions rose and the war began.

The American Civil War remains, to date, Americas bloodiest war with an estimated 750,000 military casualties. Nevertheless, the North prevailed in the conflict and slavery was abolished in 1865 (actually slaves had been officially free since Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but, as it was issued at a time of war, total abolition could not be said to have been achieved until the war ended in April 1865). Even though slavery had ended, race relations between Whites and Blacks would be tested continually in the years to follow. Race relations between Blacks and Whites after the Civil War: In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S.

Constitution, allowing voting rights to all people regardless of race, was ratified (although, in some states, these voting rights did not extend to women, white or black). The Civil Rights Act of 1871 was passed to protect Blacks in the South from abuse or murder by the Ku Klux Klan* by calling for penalties to be enforced for harassment. Unfortunately, this did little to limit the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, nor to curb discrimination against Blacks. The Ku Klux Klan had no shortage of collaborators in positions of power (including the police and government officials),
* The Ku Klux Klan [KKK] is a society of individuals who have historically resorted to threats, violence, and murder to promote the cause of white supremacy. From 1915-1944, their numbers reached as many as 6,000,000. As of 2012, there are an estimated 3,000-5,000 members.

The hegemony of Whites over Blacks in the United States continued though the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. Jim Crow Laws in the South allowed for racial segregation (the legal and social separation of African Americans from other races). Black children could not attend white schools. African Americans had to drink from separate drinking fountains than Whites. Even if they were of the same religious faith, Blacks and Whites attended separate churches. The roles of Blacks were, in every aspect of society, subservient to those of Whites.

The American Civil Rights Movement: To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, at a time when the civil rights movement in America was gaining steam. In December 1955, a black woman from Montgomery, Alabama, by the name of Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat in the Colored Section of the bus to a white passenger, even after being ordered to do so by the driver. She was later arrested, though she had broken no laws by wishing to stay in her own section. Martin Luther King, along with the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People a civil rights organization), decided to organize a demonstration of civil disobedience by boycotting all buses on the day of the Rosa Parks trial. More than 40,000 members of the black

community participated. This protest came to be known famously as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This was followed by numerous other demonstrations promoting the cause of integration (another word for desegregation).

How does this relate to the novel? To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Nelle Harper Lee, a Southerner from Monroeville, Alabama (a town very much like Maycomb). Civil Rights was a hot topic at the time it was written. Even though the novel was written in the late 50s and deals with race relations between Blacks and Whites, the story takes place about 25 years earlier (often times, when an author wishes to convey a message about a current issue, he/she might set the story in an earlier time period, in order to establish context, and to provide a broader view of the topic through specific events and their aftermaths: by utilizing this method, the storys message tends to have a more resounding impact upon the audience than it would if the writer had set the story in the present day).

From whose perspective is the novel being narrated? The events are narrated by Jean Louise Finch, an adult who is reflecting on events that took place over a four-year period during her childhood. As a child, she is a tomboy who goes by the nickname of Scout. The character of Scout is, in reality, loosely based on Harper Lee, who herself was a tomboy, and who had a father very much like Scouts father, Atticus Finch. There are other characters in this book that are based on real life peoplethe most of famous of whom being Truman Capote (see the center picture below), the famous novelist and childhood friend of Harper Lee. Capote was the inspiration for the character of Dill.

Comprehension Questions

1) What is the Great Depression? How did the Great Depression affect the southern rural areas of the United States? What was the general mood of the people during this time? How did Roosevelt try to change it?

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2) Which sides fought the American Civil War? Why did they fight? What side of the war was the Finch family on?

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3) What are some ways in which the hegemony of Whites over Blacks continued after the Civil War? What is meant by racial segregation?

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4) Who was Rosa Parks? Where was she from? What was the Montgomery Bus Boycott?

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5) In what year was To Kill a Mockingbird written? Where does it take place? When does it take place? Why might the author have decided to set it in the past, rather than in the present day?

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6) Who is the narrator in the book? Who was the inspiration for that character? Is this novel, in any way, autobiographical?

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7) This book deals a lot with the topic of racial injustice. Have you ever read any books, or seen any movies that work with similar themes? Give examples.

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