As characterized by Miss Maudie, this novel presents a picture of the American South in transition, taking "baby steps" toward a greater sense of racial equality.
In small ways, the attitudes of Jem and Scout present a movement toward integration as they attend an African American church and sit in the "colored section" of the court house during Tom Robinson's trial.
More broadly, the transitional steps being taken in Maycomb and the accompanying progressive attitudes they suggest come largely in the events of the trial of Tom Robinson. Though Robinson is falsely convicted, some semblance of progress is seen by Atticus and Miss Maudie despite the trial's outcome.
These positive steps are seen as a silver-lining to the larger injustice of the case, which comes as no surprise to most of the people in Maycomb, as Reverend Sykes makes clear.
Reverent Sykes says, “Now don’t you be so confident, Mr. Jem, I ain’t ever seen any jury decide in favor of a colored man over a white man.”
Sykes warning to Jem conveys a social reality of Maycomb, but the jury does not immediately succumb to the pressures of this reality. Instead, the jury takes some time to deliberate on Tom Robinson's guilt or innocence, with one juror making a strong case for acquittal.
This lone juror is one example of progress in Maycomb and the time spent in deliberation is another "baby step" demonstrating changing attitudes in the town. Though the measures of progress seen here rather hopefully cling to a small degree of success, Atticus relays his belief that change may be underway in the culture of Maycomb.
Atticus says after the verdict, “this may be the shadow of a beginning.”
Despite the numerous symbols and lessons in the book, it is the drama in the courtroom that actually propels the events forward: the drama of Tom being convicted for a crime he did not commit; the drama of proving that Mayella and her father lied; and finally the drama that should cause the white citizens of Maycomb to rethink simply believing someone because of their skin color. This is quite apparent when Atticus asks Mayella, “What did your father see in the window, the crime of rape or the best defense to it?” (190). However, “Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed” (244).
Social transformation in the Old South was slow in coming - but the very fact that a White Southern Gentleman, Atticus Finch, decides to defend a Black Man shows that despite the turmoil, change is in the air and the idea of civil rights based not on color but on merit is coming about. While the town criticizes Atticus and pokes fun at Scout and Jem, to the point that Atticus fears for their safety and bans them from coming to the trial, there are still those in Maycomb who do not believe in their previous generation's views on race.