To Kill a Mockingbird and Brown v. Board of Education

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is among the most widely taught novels in English-language classrooms yet rarely receives attention in university-level courses because of its apparent simplicity and transparent lesson in the importance of empathy. Beneath the heart-warming surface tale, however, lie complex and conflicted views of race relations and modernization in the American South. The novel’s underlying complexity can be rendered more visible to students through a historical approach that pairs this literary text with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of segregation by race in public schools. This pairing allows us to read To Kill a Mockingbird both as an oblique challenge to the Court’s ruling and as a humorous critique of the very public school system in which the novel has become so firmly enshrined.

 

Group Activity: Historical Approach to To Kill a Mockingbird

In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a case argued in December 1952 and decided in May 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that

in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

This opinion of the Court, as delivered by Chief Justice Warren, contains statements that, when considered alongside your close reading of To Kill a Mockingbird (written in the late 1950s and published in 1960), suggest that Harper Lee and the Supreme Court justices were among the many contributors to discussions in the 1950s and beyond about race relations and public education.

Instructions: In your group, review the following two passages from the opinion of the Court in the ruling Brown v. Board of Education and respond to the discussion prompt accompanying each passage.

Passage One: “To separate them [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Discussion Prompt One: Paraphrase this short passage from the Supreme Court’s decision in order to be sure that your group agrees on its meaning. Next, review Atticus’s closing arguments in the trial scene of Lee’s novel, paying particular attention to the long paragraph (beginning “One more thing…”) in which he uses the term “feelings of inferiority.” How closely does the language of Atticus’ argument in To Kill a Mockingbird echo that of the Supreme Court’s decision? What is the purpose or effect of this echo?

Passage Two: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Discussion Prompt Two: Review the Supreme Court’s statement on the importance of education. Summarize the statement in order to be sure that your group agrees on its meaning. Next, consider how the education of youth is treated in one or more sections of Lee’s novel. How does the narrator’s view of public education in To Kill a Mockingbird resemble or differ from that of the Supreme Court?

 

James B. Kelley, Mississippi State University–Meridian

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