When in Chapter 26 of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Gates launches into a discussion of “democracy,” the significance is apparent within the context of the racism endemic throughout this community, and that lies at the core of the criminal charges against the African American defendant, Tom Robinson. Scout is describing her class’s ritualistic “Current Events” period, during which the students are expected to discuss an article from the newspaper describing some event in their community or around the world. Cecil Jacobs, one of Scout’s fellow students, discusses an article on Hitler and Germany’s Jewish population. In response to Cecil’s recitation of the Nazi leader’s atrocious human rights violations, another child asks why that country’s government did nothing to stop this bad man. Miss Gates responds with the following explanation:
“Hitler is the government,” said Miss Gates, and seizing an opportunity to make education dynamic, she went to the blackboard. She printed DEMOCRACY in large letters. “Democracy,” she said. “Does anybody have a definition?”
The teacher then goes on to explain the differences between the United States, a democracy, and Germany, which is ruled by a tyrannical dictatorial regime:
“That’s the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. Dictator-ship,” she said. “Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Prejudice,” she enunciated carefully. “There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.”
Miss Gates's discussion of the differences between a democracy and a dictatorship is ironic because only days before an innocent man was convicted of rape and sent to prison where he was killed “trying to escape.” That man’s only crime, in Maycomb, was his race. Tom Robinson was a black man in the virulently racist American South. Miss Gates’s description of the differences between dictatorship and democracy is particularly timely given those recent events.