Discuss the nature of prejudice in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by studying the way in which Harper Lee presents the black characters and the social stratification of Maycomb society.
‘…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ – American Declaration of Independence, 1776.
The American Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal, meaning that all men should be treated as equally as they were created. Throughout American history, this has been somewhat ignored, Harper Lee highlights this fact throughout her novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was written in 1960s America when the government was tackling segregation. At this time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed prohibiting all kinds of discrimination based on race, colour, religion, or national origin, the law also provided the federal government with the power to enforce desegregation.
The book was written around 100 years after the civil war and thirty years before the Civil Rights Act, possibly with the intention of showing that although the laws continue to state equality on paper, in practise there was still little to no change.
The book is set during the 1930s when blacks were regarded as third class citizens. It is also a time where a society like Maycomb County relied on social hierarchy. After the civil war in 1861, all black slaves were freed, this, however, did not change the attitudes of southern whites towards them. We are shown this lack of ability to change in Maycomb during the case of Tom Robinson. Harper Lee describes Maycomb County as ‘a tired, old town’; this persona given to the town shows the narrow-minded and outdated views of the people within it. To the whites, blacks were still slaves, and their freedom began to threaten the all-important hierarchy. The people most threatened by the newly freed blacks were those known as ‘white trash’. This term refers to all those who owned very little and were extremely poor. They were despised almost as much as the blacks, their only saving grace being their white skin. An example of ‘white trash’ in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are the Ewell family. Jem notices the social hierarchy of the town for himself, he divides Maycomb into four easily identifiable groups, the white middle class: his own family and neighbours, the poor but honest farmers: the Cunninghams and Little Chuck Little, the poor, uneducated whites: the Ewells, and the blacks: Calpurnia, Tom Robinson and his family.
Harper Lee shows that racists are still real people, with the same human emotions as everyone else, we are shown this when Scout casually starts a conversation with Mr Cunningham outside the county jail, within a lynching mob. This innocence on Scout’s behalf completely undermines the severity of the situation. Scout does not seem to realise how potentially dangerous the situation could be, but talks to Mr Cunningham like an old friend, this stops him in his tracks. During their brief conversation, we almost see Mr Cunningham deflate from a hotheaded bigot to his usual self, all it took was the innocence of a child to make a man with incredibly strong beliefs stop and re-think his actions and pull the others away. Atticus, being the intelligent man he is notices this right away: ‘”So it took an eight-year-old child to bring 'em to their senses.... That proves something - that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they're still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children.”’
It is fairly ironic that the people of Maycomb condemn the actions of Hitler towards the Jews, quite heavily disagreeing with his actions, but at the same time are doing something fairly similar themselves with the blacks, the difference between the two parties is that the townsfolk...
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