One central theme in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is prejudice vs. tolerance. The theme of prejudice is especially developed through Atticus Finch's defense of Tom Robinson, an African American accused of rape. Atticus' questions posed during the trial clearly showed that Robinson was innocent and that Mayella Ewell's father, Bob Ewell, was actually guilty of abusing Mayella. One of Atticus' most telling questions posed to Bob Ewell was asking him to confirm Sheriff Tate's testimony that Mayella's right eye had been blackened; he then asks Ewell to write his name to show that Ewell is left handed. The final telling moment in court is when he has Tom Robinson stand up in court to show that his own left arm was "fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side" because he crippled it as a boy by getting it caught in a cotton gin, showing us that only Ewell could have hit Mayella in her right eye, not Robinson. Though Atticus's defense shows it was impossible for Tom to have abused Mayella, that her father was the true culprit, due to racial prejudices, the jury still decided Robinson was guilty and sentenced him to death. In contrast, Atticus' willingness to defend Robinson before the court demonstrates his acceptance of others, the same acceptance he is trying to teach Scout and Jem.
The theme of prejudice vs. tolerance will, unfortunately, throughout eternity, be a universally applicable theme. Today, prejudices and the need for tolerance are portrayed through the significant numbers of hate crimes that have led to either suicides or mass murders. One example of a recent hate crime can be seen in the mass shooting at Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2005. Upon his arrest, culprit Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, confessed to having committed the crime because he wanted to start a race war and having targeted the church for its rich African-American history and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.
There are several themes at play in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, one being innocence and the way that innocents are treated by society. Miss Maudie's famous quote "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird" is reflected in several of the characters throughout the story. Boo Radley is an innocent yet he is the source of neighborhood gossip and fear, and Tom Robinson is an innocent yet is convicted and eventually killed over an obviously false rape allegation. Scout is also struggling with her own innocence, as she realizes that the adult world around her is obviously unfair, hypocritical and racist.
Unfortunately, there have been a lot of recent news stories and current events that echo similar themes. The crop of seemingly racially motivated police shootings/deaths, as well as the Florida man, Michael Dunn, who fired into a car full of unarmed black teenagers after a dispute over the volume and type of the teenager's music, all echo the same image of innocence being murdered for senseless and unsatisfying reasons.