Harper Lee’s novel of life in a small town in the American South when racism remained embedded in the regional psyche, To Kill a Mockingbird, has numerous examples of such racism directed against the town’s – Maycomb, Alabama – population of desperately poor blacks. In fact, one of the novel’s central plots involves the father of the story’s narrator, Scout, a lawyer representing a black man accused of raping and beating a white girl despite a paucity evidence pointing to the black man’s guilt. In the Deep South of the 1930s, where and when Lee’s novel takes place, racism against blacks is endemic, often manifesting itself in overt verbal and physical attacks. For example, Tom Robinson, the kindly, meek and physically disabled black accused of the rape, is the target of innumerable racial taunts and is regularly referred to by angry white town folks as a “nigger.” So ingrained in the culture portrayed in Lee’s novel is the prejudice and legacy of discrimination directed against blacks that the black community even uses that word to describe elements of its own community, as when the Scout, her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill discuss local superstitions. Jem, the older and wiser of the children, warns his sister about ignoring the scary stories Dill relates and which frighten Scout: "Don't you believe a word he says, Dill," I said. "Calpurnia (the Finch family’s African-American housekeeper) says that's nigger-talk." Similarly, later when the kids are attempting to build a snowman without an adequate supply of snow, they substitute dirt instead, resulting in a dark-complexioned snowman, to which Scout, a sweet, conscientious and nonjudgmental girl innocently remarks, "’Jem, I ain't ever heard of a nigger snowman,’ I said.” These racist comments by nonracist children typify the culture in which they are growing up. Lee does not suggest that there is any animosity in Jem and Scout with regard to blacks. On the contrary, their father, Atticus, a socially liberal educated lawyer, has raised his children to view individuals as eminently decent until evidence suggests otherwise – a practice that will similarly prove beneficial towards the novel’s end when the mysterious figure of Boo Radley emerges from the shadows a heroic and kind person.
If these instance of the use of a word the use of which by various elements of the American public remains contentious and hotly debated today is employed in a relatively benign context in the above quote, however, it is later scenes involving Tom Robinson and the angry white mobs that aim to lynch him that reveal the real depth of the racism permeating this Alabama town. When word gets around that Atticus will defend Tom Robinson in the emotionally and racially-charged rape case, Jem and Scout are forced to endure racist taunts from their schoolmates, as in the following comment:
“Cecil Jacobs made me forget. He had announced in the schoolyard the day before that Scout Finch's daddy defended niggers. I denied it, but told Jem.”
The next day in the schoolyard, the taunting from the children of white racists assumes a more intimidating form, as when Scout is again confronted by Cecil Jacobs:
“. . .I faced Cecil Jacobs in the schoolyard next day: "You gonna take that back, boy?"
"You gotta make me first!" he yelled. "My folks said your daddy was a disgrace an' that nigger oughta hang from the water-tank!”
This sentiment, uttered by a child, is clearly representative of the views of the town’s adult population. Scout describes a Christmas Dinner with her extended family, during which her cousin, Francis, makes clear that Atticus’ liberal attitudes towards blacks are not welcome:
"If Uncle Atticus lets you run around with stray dogs, that's his own business, like Grandma says, so it ain't your fault. I guess it ain't your fault if Uncle Atticus is a nigger-lover besides, but I'm here to tell you it certainly does mortify the rest of the family-"
"Francis, what the hell do you mean?"
"Just what I said. Grandma says it's bad enough he lets you all run wild, but now he's turned out a nigger-lover we'll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb agin. He's ruinin' the family, that's what he's doin'."
In Chapter Eleven, the Finch children are accosted by Mrs. Dubose, a particularly unpleasant and virulently racist member of the community who takes it upon herself to school Jem and Scout about the ways of the world and where the Finch family ranks by virtue of Atticus’s decision to defend Tom Robinson:
"Yes indeed, what has this world come to when a Finch goes against his raising? I'll tell you!" She put her hand to her mouth. When she drew it away, it trailed a long silver thread of saliva. "Your father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for!"
The novel’s most tense scene takes place in Chapter 15, outside the town jail, where Tom is being held pending his trial. An angry mob of racist whites descends on the jail with the intention of breaking in and lynching the black suspect. No racist words are used; none are needed. The men make clear by their presence and demeanor and demand that Atticus step aside that they plan to lynch Tom. It is a scene that portrays the racism native to the region without employing what we now refer to as “the N word.”
Finally, Tom’s conviction on the charge of rape, despite his being physically incapable of having committed the crime and the “victim’s” father clearly being the more likely perpetrator, and his later killing while allegedly trying to escape prison place the novel’s depictions of racism in a very revealing and entirely credible light. To Kill a Mockingbird is about racism and prejudice, and the depths to which many people will sink to enforce their own perverted views of humanity. Atticus Finch is not entirely alone in his town in seeking objective justice, but he represents a very small minority.
Here is a video about the themes of the novel:
While Harper Lee exposes the racism of the Jim Crow South in the trial of Tom Robinson, the reader should not forget the racial bias of Lula who resents the white children's coming into her church. She tells Calpurnia,
"You ain't got no business bringin' white chillun here--they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it , Miss Cal?"
In addition, racism is not always so clear-cut in Maycomb in other ways. For example, at the missionary tea when Mrs. Merriweather speaks of the "saintly J. Grimes Everett" who lives in the jungle with the natives in Africa, it is with admiration. Yet, she later mentions how her maid was "sulky and dissatisfied" after the trial. And Mr. Underwood, who has made it clear that he does not care for blacks, nevertheless, writes a scathing editorial about the cruelty dealt to Tom Robinson.
Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping. He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds....
While Mr. Dolphus Raymond, an upper-class man of Maycomb, cohabits with black woman and has black children. Mr. Link Deas speaks up on behalf of Tom Robinson, declaring at the trial that Tom is a decent man.
The line between the races is not so clearly divided as one would assume in the South. As a native of Alabama, Harper Lee understands the nuances of racism and the lack of it, as well, in her home state.
"It couldn't be worse, Jack. The only thing we've got is a black man's word against the Ewells'. The evidence boils down to you-did--I-didn't. The jury couldn't possibly be expected to take Tom Robinson's word against the Ewells'--are you acquainted with the Ewells?" (88)
Lula stopped, but she said, "You ain't got no business bringin' white chillun here--they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it, Miss Cal?" (119). This is a good example to show that there was a degree of racism on both sides of the color line.
"Well, Mr. Finch didn't act that way to Mayella and old man Ewell when he cross-examined them. The way that man called him 'boy' all the time an' sneered at him, an' looked around at the jury every time he answered--"
"Well, Dill, after all he's just a Negro." (199)