Jim Crow Laws in To Kill a Mockingbird

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  • 0:04 Jim Crow Laws
  • 1:32 Examples of Jim Crow Laws
  • 2:54 Influences in the Novel
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Garrett

Sarah has taught secondary English and holds a master's degree in Curriculum & Instruction

In this lesson, we will discuss the Jim Crow laws and how these laws affect the novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. Having knowledge of these laws will help greatly in understanding the novel.

Jim Crow Laws

Can you imagine never being able to associate with anyone except your own race? What about knowing you would never have a fair trial in court, or restitution if something you had was stolen or defiled? What about being scared for your life if you accidentally offended a white person? These were the harsh realities of the Jim Crow Era, which lasted for almost 100 years after Reconstruction. Having a basic knowledge of this era and the Jim Crow laws is essential for understanding the racial divide in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

The name Jim Crow came from a song written by Thomas Dartmouth ''Daddy'' Rice, a white man. As a struggling actor, he heard another black person singing a song about a man named Jim Crow. After this, Rice decided to take on a highly exaggerated and stereotypical black stage persona and call himself Jim Crow. He darkened his skin and began performing all over the country. The term Jim Crow soon became synonymous with black laws that oppressed black people.

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the 1930s, which was a time of staunch racism. Many Southern states operated under the Jim Crow laws, which governed how people of different races were allowed to interact in life and social situations. These laws subjugated black people and made them live lives that were separate from white people, also known as segregation.

Examples of Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow laws were used to separate the races in virtually every aspect of life. For example, each race lived in different sections of towns and cities. Black people and white people also had separate sections in almost every public space, including schools, restaurants, waiting rooms, and theaters. Interracial marriage was also outlawed.

Separate theatre for people of color
Black Theatre

These laws basically made white people superior in every way. Whites received the high paying jobs, while black people mainly worked in service or hard labor positions. Black people always had to use respect titles with white people, such as Mr. and Mrs., but not vice versa. If a black person and a white person met at a four way stop, the white person always had the right of way. Black individuals couldn't even insinuate that a white person was lying; they just had to accept being cheated, mistreated, and degraded.

In most places in the South, the Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced. A black person always lived in fear of accidentally breaking one of the laws, and doing so carried harsh penalties - black people could be mistreated, fired, beaten, murdered, lynched, tarred and feathered, burned, or suffer a slew of other horrible punishments. There were no consequences for the white perpetrators because in most Southern courts of law, a white person always won.

Influences in the Novel

In the first eight chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird, not much is mentioned about race. We just know that the Finch family has a black cook named Calpurnia, and that everyone that lives on Scout's street is white, and the children at her school are all white as well. But racism comes through loud and clear from chapter nine through the rest of the book. In the ninth chapter, one of Scout's classmates, Cecil Jacobs, makes fun of Scout by saying that her Daddy defends black people by using a racial epithet. From this incident, we learn that Atticus Finch has been appointed to defend a man named Tom Robinson, who was accused of the rape of a white teenager named Mayella Ewell. Atticus intends to prove Tom's innocence, which shocks much of the town. As you can imagine, in a time when Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced, a white person trying to help a black person was extremely frowned upon by white society.

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