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To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and EthicsTo Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics


To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)


Written by the American female author, Harper Lee (1926- ), pictured right.


Set in... 

1930's Maycomb, Alabama (based on Harper Lee's home town of Monroeville).

The girl character, Scout, was based on Harper Lee, and Atticus Finch based on her father.


Who inspired the book?To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

The Scottsboro Boys (pictured right).

They were African American youths wrongly convicted of raping two white girls in 1931.



 Fun facts

  •  The 1962 Oscar winning film starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch - pictured right below with the girl who played Scout (Mary Badham).
  • The boy character, Dill Capote, was based on the American writer, Truman Capote (1924-84).

 To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics 

Key characters

Scout (nickname of Jean-Louise Finch), young white girl and the book’s narrator.

Atticus (Finch), her father and a white lawyer.

Jem, her older brother.

Dill Capote, Scout and Jem's friend.

Calpurnia (Cal), the Finch family’s African American cook.

Boo Radley, the Finchs’ neighbour.

Tom (Robinson), African American accused of rape.

 To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

The story

It is the summer of 1933 and Scout (pictured right in the film) is near her sixth birthday in Maycomb, Alabama.

She, her brother, Jem and their friend, Dill, are fascinated by their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, who:

  • secretly gives them presents.
  • mends Jem's trousers (after they are chased off Boo's property by his brother, Nathan).

The children try to entice Boo out of his house.To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

Unfortunately, the house of their friendly neighbour, Miss Maudie, burns down, and Boo puts a blanket around her shoulders.

Scout and Jem learn to respect their father, Atticus Finch (a widowed lawyer), particularly after he shoots a mad dog in the street (pictured right in the film).

He gives them an air rifle each for Christmas and tells them it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because it's so beautiful and does nobody any harm.

He also teaches his children to be empathetic and hate cruelty and unfairness. Jem starts to learn this lesson, when he realizes how courageous another neighbour, Mrs. Dubose, has been in her fight against morphine addiction, when he reads to her just before her death.To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

Atticus is attacked by the white community for defending an African American, Tom Robinson, after he is charged with raping a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell (pictured right in the film).

This teaches Scout and Jem about racial prejudice, practised by many whites including their Aunt Alexandra, who comes to live with them.

They are disgusted by such racism because of

  • their father’s example.
  • the kindness of their black cook, Calpurnia (who tells them about Tom’s family and black oppression). To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

Before the trial, Atticus sits outside Maycomb jail, guarding Tom from a lynch mob (pictured right). This is dispersed by its leader, Mr Cunningham, after Scout makes him feel guilty through a friendly enquiry about his son and her classmate, Walter.

In court, Atticus shows that the alleged victim, Mayella, was hit by a strong left hand but Tom’s left hand is crippled.

It is clear that her left handed father, Bob Ewell, beat her up, not Tom Her loneliness encouraged her to grab Tom and try and kiss him, leading to the trumped up rape charge.

Despite Tom’s innocence, the white jury find him guilty. Jem and Scout are shocked and astonished.

A desperate Tom (pictured right below in the film) is killed trying to escape from prison. Atticus interrupts Aunt Alexandra’s charity tea party and asks Calpurnia to accompany him to tell Tom’s wife, Helen, of his death.To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout with a knife as revenge against Atticus. Jem is injured and heroically rescued by Boo Radley.

Ewell is found stabbed to death with his knife. Atticus soon realizes that Boo was the killer and is persuaded by Heck Tate, the town sheriff, to keep the incident quiet to protect Boo.

Scout visits Boo, sees the world from his point of view and realizes what a great man he is.


Lessons for racism and ethics


1. Understand people

Atticus teaches Scout the importance of:

  • empathy. To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics
  • tolerance.
  • understanding other people’s point of view.

Scout thinks that Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, pictured right, in the film)  is a mad recluse until he rescues her and Jem.

She also grieves for Tom and his family.


2. Racism is wrong

Tom’s only crime is that he is black. He is a good, church going guy with a loving wife and three children.

In Maycomb there are bad racist bigots like Bob Ewell as well as good non-racists like:

  • Atticus.
  • Miss Maudie.
  • Heck Tate.

 To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

3. Courage is cool

Atticus has enormous moral courage defending Tom and standing up to Maycomb’s racists like Bob Ewell.

He tells his children that real courage is

“when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what”

This is just like Mrs Dubose’s brave fight against morphine addiction.

 Atticus (Gregory Peck) is pictured above with Tom (Brock Peters) at the trial in the film. 


4. Be optimistic

Despite the racist evil in Maycomb, there is hope for the future through good people like

  • the Finchs.
  • their kind neighbour Miss Maudie. To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

Miss Maudie  (Rosemary Murphy, pictured right, with Jem, Philip Alford, in the film):

  • sees Atticus’s defence of Tom as a “baby step” towards a fairer society.
  • is optimistic even after her house burns down.

It also seems certain that Jem and Scout will carry on Atticus’s fight for justice.

One person in the jury is also doubtful about Tom’s guilt, giving hope that racism might not last forever.

 To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

5. Integrity inspires

Atticus (pictured right in the film) is a leader of his community because of his:

  • principles (particularly love, honesty, justice and keeping people's human dignity)
  • sense of responsibility to do what’s right (like defending Tom and not killing a mockingbird because it is so beautiful and tuneful).


6. Humility and honesty are important

Atticus is never arrogant or condescending

But Calpurnia wisely advises the children that you can sometimes annoy less knowledgeable people (like the racists).

As with everybody else, Atticus is honest and never devious with his children. He:

  • listens to their opinions.
  • answers their difficult questions (even the embarrassing ones!).
  • treats them like young adults (e.g. he takes them to Tom’s trial).

So they respect each other and the children become more mature and responsible.

 To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

7. Never stop learning

Scout and Jem learn lots of lessons about love and justice, particularly from:

  • Atticus (pictured right reading with Scout in the film).
  • Miss Maudie.
  •  Boo Radley (the unlikely hero who is kind and rescues Jem).
  • Calpurnia (Estelle Evans, pictured right below, in the film)

 To Kill a Mockingbird - Racism and Ethics

8. Religion doesn’t necessarily make you right

There are plenty of racist church goers in Maycomb like Aunt Alexandra.

But there are also good Christians like:

  • Atticus and Tom.
  • Miss Maudie (who warns Scout about narrow-minded religious dogma). 

Some church goers quote a Bible verse to criticize Miss Maudie's garden, and she responds with another verse that totally contradicts them!


Key quote on emotional intelligence

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it, Atticus


Key quotes on ethics

The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience, Atticus.

The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right, Atticus.

Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. (the mockingbird symbolizes innocence), Atticus.


Key quotes on the law

The one place a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any colour of the rainbow, Atticus


Key quotes on relationships

I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks, Scout

Folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ‘em, Calpurnia


Key quotes on leadership

Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets, Miss Maudie.

I simply wanted to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them, Miss Maudie.


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com


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