African Americans were considered second-class citizens by many white people in the Deep South during the Great Depression days of the 1930s. The Jim Crow laws in effect prevented blacks from socializing with whites, and segregation of the races was the rule of the South. Most African Americans knew better than to even speak about Maycomb's white world; Scout is shocked when Calpurnia comments that Mr. Radley was
"... the meanest man ever God blew breath into... (Chapter 1)
since Cal "rarely commented on the ways of white people." Black men knew better than to even look at, much less speak to, white women for fear of reprisal. Blacks were expected to address white men as "Sir" ("Suh"), and they were looked upon by many whites as both inferior and childlike. Even though the Ewells were "the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations" and Mayella herself was a childlike young woman, Tom's remark stunned the courtroom since blacks--the lowest class on Maycomb's social ladder--were not expected to show sympathy toward white people. Such commentary from Tom, a black man and accused rapist, toward his supposed victim, was seen as "uppity"--arrogant and presumptuous--from someone so poor and uneducated. Tom's remark was a signal to the white jurors and courtroom audience that he was "above himself"--that he had crossed the line that white folks expected all blacks to follow.