To Kill a Mockingbird Historical Context 📖

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee was apt in timing as it addressed the powerful issue of race at a time in history when serious conversations and actions about race were taking place across the world.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is set in a 1930s Southern small town in Alabama, USA, but was written in the late 1950s and published in 1960. Both the era of the novel’s setting and the timing of its writing and publication combine to give it a profound historical context.

The Jim Crow Era

The Jim Crow era is a period ranging from the late 1880s to the mid-1960s when local and state laws, mostly in Southern states of the US, enforced racial segregation in all public facilities and stringent voting requirements that disenfranchised some poor white people and a majority of the black population.

The state built separate schools for blacks and whites, separate compartments in public transport vehicles, black people were not allowed into hotels and banks for white people, and the residential area for blacks was separated from that of whites. These Southern states rationalized this discriminatory policy with the phrase ”seperate but equal”, but in actuality, the public facilities allotted to the blacks were significantly inferior to those for the whites.

In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the Jim Crow laws are still in effect in the setting, and an indication of this is in Jem and Scout’s cluelessness about the lives of black people when they follow Calpurnia to the Black people’s church and in the decidedly secluded part of town meant for blacks only.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression was a period of severe economic depression that began in the United States and spread across the world from the year 1929 to 1939.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the narrator remarks that everyone is poor but in relation to others, the farmers are the most impoverished by the economic depression. The Cunningham family, who are farmers, are described to be so poor that they cannot afford to feed well or to pay for legal services. This description is realistic because farmers were badly hit by the depression as crop prices fell by about 60 percent during the period.

Nazi Germany

To Kill a Mockingbird makes allusions to the totalitarian rule and antisemitic policies of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Adolph Hitler became the ruler of Germany in 1933 and ruled until his suicide in 1945.

Hitler’s rule in Germany is used as a backdrop to show the extent of hypocrisy, bigotry, and multiple moral standards some Southern white people have when it comes to race and racism. For instance, we see the character Miss Gates passionately condemning Hitler’s antisemitic actions of the Adolph Hitler dictatorship but passionately supporting injustice and discrimination against blacks in her own community.

The Civil Rights Movement

The writing and publication of the racially-themed To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee aptly coincided with the uprising against racial discrimination and the Civil Rights Movement that was gaining momentum in the Southern States of the US. The 1950s and 1960s had the South becoming an epicenter of civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance, protests, and riots.

There was the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education Topeka that pronounced school segregation unconstitutional, the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1956 Sugar Bowl riots, the emergence of the charismatic black freedom fighter Martin Luther King Jr, and his leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the late 1950s and other civil unrests campaigning for the abolishment of racial discrimination. All these events provided an apt historical context for the reception of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.


Why are the Cunninghams poor?

The Cunninghams in To Kill a Mockingbird are poor because they are small-town farmers who were adversely affected by the economic hardships of the Great Depression.

Why is To Kill a Mockingbird famous?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is famous for being a well-told story that exposes the evils of discrimination and cruelty in a masterful narration from a child’s perspective.
To Kill a Mockingbird‘s 1962 film adaptation with the same title also helped make the novel more famous.

What does Atticus mean when he says Mr Cunningham has blind spots?

Atticus was referring to Mr Cunningham’s racial prejudice. Atticus believed that Mr Cunningham’s racist actions were a product of conditioning from the racist community to which he belongs and also of his ignorance.

Is To Kill a Mockingbird a true story?

No, To Kill a Mockingbird is not a true story. It is a fictional novel, written by Harper Lee. The novel was published in the year 1960.

Onyeka Osuji
About Onyeka Osuji
Onyeka is a lecturer of Public Administration and a Literature enthusiast. After gaining accreditation in English Literature, Onyeka analyzes novels on Book Analysis, whilst working as an academic and writing short stories.
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