The novel is set in Maycomb County during the period 1933 - 1935. This was a period of great disillusionment and anxiety - the period of the Great Depression. Many inhabitants of the South were especially burdened with the tensions and conflict which occurred during the American Civil War. A war in which the major point of conflict arose on the issue of slavery.
Whilst the North had adopted a more liberal approach and wanted slavery abolished, the South, which derived almost all of its income from agriculture, was dependent on slave labour and refused to relinquish the slave trade. This obviously, lead to much abuse of the African American slaves in the employ of white landowners.
In the end, obviously, slavery was abolished and African Americans were given greater freedoms. These freedoms were however, extremely limited and widespread abuse and discrimination was still the order of the day. Harper Lee grew up in this period and witnessed much of the discrimination presented in her novel.
The prejudice, for example, displayed against Tom Robinson who comes to symbolise the kind of prejudice suffered by African Americans during this time, is a key aspect of the novel and illustrates what kind of conflict existed not only in real, physical terms, in the minds of inhabitants of the South, but also what kind of prejudice still festered in so many minds.
Harper Lee became an adult during a period when the Civil Rights Movement was established and gained momentum under the leadership of patrons such as the esteemed Martin Luther King jr. This period of civil awareness and the fight for equality obviously had a profound effect on Harper Lee and her novel, in this sense could be seen as a form of protest against unfair discrimination.
The novel, however, also deals with other issues of prejudice, such as the discriminatory attitude towards women and the novel is thus just as much a protest against the fact that women were treated as second-class citizens who always had to be well-behaved, know their place and respect their male counterparts. The character, Scout, battles against these preconceptions and refuses to fit the mould.
The book was not well received but achieved great critical acclaim and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1961
At the time of setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, the Great Depression takes place, a time of great economic deprivation for whites and blacks alike. Since to this day Alabama is one of poorest states in America (the 6th poorest as of 2014), in the Southern part of Alabama where Maycomb is located ( this town is based upon the hometown of Lee, Monroeville), there are many indigent and suffering individuals, both white and black.
However, the effects of the Civil War which ended on April 9, 1865, were probably not a contributor to the background of Lee's narrative. What was a contributor were the Jim Crow Laws which were created in the late 1800s after the Civil War and lasted until 1960s when the Civil Right Acts were passed. In Alabama, Jim Crow made miscegenation against the law, schools were segregated, jails were segregated, restaurants were segregated, neighborhoods were segregated, water fountains, public bathrooms were segreagated. Trains had cars designated for blacks, on buses blacks sat in the back. Restaurants and other places had signs that read "Colored served in the back" and there would be a full wall between white and black customers. Blacks held menial jobs and were paid poorly. Nevertheless, it was not uncommon for white people to treat their maids with some considerations such as does Atticus Finch.