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Sheriff Tate and the other men who congregate in Atticus's front yard are worried because they have just learned that Tom will be moved to the local county jail the following day. Tate recognizes that there may be surprises. "I don't look for any trouble, but I can't guarantee there won't be any...," he tells Atticus. Link Deas responds that it's not the people of Maycomb that are "up to anything, it's that Old Sarum bunch I'm worried about..." The men are concerned that Tom may not be safe in the jail with just Sheriff Tate on guard, and their suspicions prove to be true the next evening. First, Tate is lured away on "a snipe hunt," forcing Atticus to stand alone outside the jail. Just as Link Deas predicted, it is a group of Old Sarum men (including several of the Cunningham clan) who show up at what they expect will be an undefended jail, intent on taking Tom by force and lynching him.
Since Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about overcoming the sins of prejudice and intolerance, we can assume that Heck Tate and his men are worried about a possible lynching when they discuss the fact that Tom Robinson is being held at a local jail.
Their fear is very well founded. Lynching happened in the South all too often. Angry white crowds were known to drag accused African-American criminals out of jail before they had ever been tried and hang them off buildings or from trees.
The New York Times recently published an article by Campbell Robertson titled “History of Lynching in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names.” The article cites a report by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, five years in the making, that recognizes 3,959 lynchings in 12 southern states from 1877- 1950. These acts of vigilantism were well known to the readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 and set in the 1930's.
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