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Jim Crow in “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

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The Jim Crow laws had a very strong influence on the way of life of many people in the late 1800’s up to the mid-1900’s. Segregation was very enforced and had the effect of people discriminating against each other. The Jim Crow laws had affected the southern part of the US, Alabama in particular. In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, many traces of the influence of the Jim Crow laws can be found. Her story is based on life in the 1930’s and takes place in Maycomb County in Alabama. The traces of the laws are mostly seen through the characters in her novel and in the way that they act towards each other.

The narrator and main character Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, has her own thoughts on the ways that people treat each other and how they discriminate. Many adults may think that she has little understanding of the things that go around in the world and why things are done the way they are. In reality Scout, as well as many other children, understands just as much about life as we do. The only difference might be that her point of view is more innocent and ideal. In time Scout starts to discover bit by bit that life is not fair and it is not how it should be, but it is instead segregated between the people.

The Ewells are very set apart from the rest of the society. This is clearly shown when Atticus stated that “the Ewells had been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations” and that “the Ewells were made up of an exclusive society made up of Ewells.” (Lee, p.30) The Ewells were treated just as inferior as the African Americans, yet they had more privileges because they are white. They do not have to abide by the law and the children did not have to attend school the whole year.

The Ewell family lives next to the dump and is in a very uncomfortable situation. Mrs. Ewell had died awhile back and Mr. Ewell is very abusive and tends to drink beyond the limits. Without her mother to help, Mayella Ewell has to take care of the household and her younger siblings alone. Others of higher class do not like to “mingle” with her family and as a result, she has no friends other than Tom Robinson. This small fact was learned when Atticus questions Mayella during court: “‘Miss Mayella,’ said Atticus, in spite of himself, ‘a nineteen-year-old girl like you must have friends. Who are your friends?’ The witness frowned as if puzzled. ‘Friends?'” (Lee, p.183)

Another family that is also set apart from society is the Cunningham family. The Cunningham’s are a poor family that were affected by the Great Depression and now are discriminated against because of their low status. Because of the lack of money, the Cunningham’s only pay debts with what they have such as crops. There was a time in which young Walter Cunningham experienced embarrassment and a good beating from Scout because Miss Caroline tried to lend him a nickel and he, as well as the whole class, knew that he would not be able to pay it back. (Lee, pgs.20-22)

Atticus Finches’s sister and Scout’s aunt, Alexandra, is a good example of someone that still lives according to the Jim Crow laws. This is shown when it is known that she does not like the idea having Calpurnia raising the children even though Cal was like a second mother to both Scout and Jem. Alexandra showed how she was uncomfortable having Cal play the role of the mother when she said “… you’ve got to do something about her. You’ve let things go on too long, Atticus, too long.”(Lee, p.136) Aunt Alexandra also disagrees with Scout and Jem hanging out with the other children that were of lower class such as the Ewells or, more specifically, the Cunningham’s. She discriminates against any person that does not have the same ancestry or the same skin color as she does. Jem once told Scout that “…our kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the colored folks.” (Lee, p.226)

The Jim Crow laws were mostly shown in the novel when Tom Robinson’s trial occurred. It was noticed that the laws had left a mark on the attitudes of the members of the jury as well as any other person in the courtroom. The mark was shown when it was said that “A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson.” (Lee, p.211) It was obvious that Tom Robinson was innocent but because of the effect the Jim Crow laws, Tom was declared guilty. Everyone was cautious of Tom’s attitude towards Mayella Ewell because the laws had said that a black man was not to show emotions or feelings towards a white woman. (Martin Luther King, Jr., NHS Jim Crow Laws) There was also a time in the book in which a mob had been looking for Tom to lynch him, which is “to decide mutually without holding a legal trial that someone is guilty of some crime or misdemeanor, and subsequently to put them to death, usually by hanging” (www.allwords.com).

Many would think that the Jim Crow laws do not affect Boo, but I think otherwise. Arthur Radley, better known as Boo, is very mysterious character in the book. He would never come out of his house leaving curiosity in the eyes of adults as well as children. Boo may not have been affected directly by the laws but other people are affected by them. Jem once said “I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time… it’s because he wants to stay inside.”(Lee, p.227) Boo would not come out because he was discriminated against by people such as Miss Stephanie Crawford, who would not stop making assumptions and judging him. He did not like being in a cruel world where people were being very racist and discriminatory, not only to African-Americans, but to inferior whites as well.

Cal and the rest of the African Americans were very discriminated against by the population of Maycomb. Cal was respected more than the others because of her having the privilege of working for Atticus, but other than that, she was set apart from the whites. All of the African Americans lived past the dump and the Ewell residence, in the Negro Cabins. She would attend the First Purchase African M. E. Church along with the other AA’s. During the times of Jim Crow, both white and black discriminated against each other and because of this Cal needed to act differently when associating with either group. Cal said “… folks do not like to somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep you’re mouth shut or talk their language.” (Lee, p.126) Because Cal was literate and other weren’t, she needed to speak the way that they spoke when around them and she needed to be more sophisticated around the other classes.

The Jim Crow laws had much influence on Harper Lee when writing To Kill a Mockingbird. She applied reality during that time to the characters giving them depth. This book was very carefully written to teach all who read it a lesson. Because of the beautifully detailed descriptions in this novel and because of many other things, this is one of the greatest novels of all time.


“Lynch.” All Words Encyclopedia. 2003. Crystal Reference.

21 March 2005 http://www.allwords.com/word-lynch.html

Martin Luther King, Jr., NHS Jim Crow Laws. January 5, 1998. Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site Interpretive Staff.

21 March 2005 http://www.nps.gov/malu/documents/jim_crow_laws.htm

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