Blacks live in complete poverty in Maycomb and have hardly any rights at all, but most of the whites are also poor, and the whole county is basically backward and marginalized, especially because of the Great Depression. Most of the whites do not even have money to pay the legal bills that they owe Atticus, but in compensation they do have a sense of racial superiority over the blacks, who are even poorer and more degraded than they are. That someone like Atticus even exists there is highly surprising, although he has no real chance of changing system as it exists in the 1930s. Macon, Alabama in the 1930s was the real-life location of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment on hundreds of poor black men, who were denied any real treatment for their condition for decades, resulting in death, disability and extreme physical suffering. Many of them were illiterate and were not even informed about the disease they had, the purpose of the study or types of treatment that were available (Pritchard 2006). In this same period in Scottsboro, Alabama, nine black youths were falsely accused of raping two white women and sentenced to death, while the number of blacks lynched after similar accusations will never really be known. Aunt Alexandra “typifies the family-oriented aristocrat of the Old South”, including the genteel poverty so common for decades after the Civil War (Bloom 26). Like all middle and upper class whites, this is a reflection of fear and insecurity, and the danger of slipping down into true poverty like the white farmers and black sharecroppers. She symbolizes this unjust social order, and instructs Atticus to inform the children about their family history “and what it’s meant to Maycomb County throughout the years, so that you’ll have some idea of who you are, so you might be moved to behave accordingly” (Lee 136). Atticus believes that this ideology of Old Families is “foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s” regardless of color, religion or ancestry, and the children agree that “there’s just one kind of folks” (Lee 259-60). Scout, Jem and Dill have far more moral clarity than most of the adults of the story, though, and “never waver in their horror at the injustice done to Tom Robinson” (Lee 24).
Poverty in the South from the time of the Civil War to the Second World War made both the class and racial caste systems even more rigid, and even though the Finches were part of the white elite, they had high social standing but little money. At the opposite end of the white social scale are Bob Ewell and his family, who have been “the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations” (Lee 37). Their only real advantage in life is that their white skin gives them certain privileges that Tom and other blacks will never have. Most of the people in Maycomb are disabled and disadvantaged in one way or the other, physically, psychology or by their fears and prejudices. Symbolically, Jem’s disabled left arm also “connects the family to Tom Robinson’s”, since he has also lost the use of one arm, while Scout also resembles Mayella Elwell, who violated the ultimate boundary in the South by being attracted to a black man (McElaney 226).
Atticus ends up being ostracized by most of the whites in the county because he believes a black man instead of a white woman and her father. Although they regard poor whites like the Ewell family with contempt, “many people in Maycomb feel that he is undermining the system that keeps whites on top of the social order” (Lee 21). Atticus has brought the children up with his own values rather than those of Alexandra so much so that they never question that he is correct in defending Tom, regardless of the consequences. Almost all the whites in Macomb oppose Atticus and his family, although a few like Boo Radley and Braxton Underwood end up taking their side. Underwood, the editor of The Maycomb Tribune, hates blacks yet nevertheless stands with Atticus when the lynch mob attempts to break into the jail (Murphy 183). Scout and the other children also join in preventing the mob attack, which causes Atticus to observe that “maybe we need a police force of children” (Lee 168). Walter Cunningham, the poor white farmer so despised by Aunt Alexandra, actually ties up the jury for hours and deadlocks it while the other eleven men are eager to convict Tom. Finally, Boo Radley, the mentally disabled recluse who has hardly been seen in public for thirty years, also becomes part of the extended family, when he saves the life of Jem and Scout at the end of the story by killing Bob Ewell—the true villain of the novel. In this way, the alternative community of whites, even though they are a minority, can at least unite around the idea that the obvious injustice and brutality being committed against Tom is simply not permissible.
In To Kill a Mockingbird the characters are brought together and challenged in ways that prove that ‘family’ means something more than just blood relatives. Over the course of the novel, the real extended family of Atticus and his children comes to include other characters that support them in their efforts to fight the injustice and oppression against Tom Robinson and his people, including Boo Radley, Braxton Underwood and even Walter Cunningham. From the start, Scout, Jem and Dill are all united in opposing the treatment of Tom, and even though they remain in the minority others join their ‘family’ as well. On the other hand, blood relatives like Aunt Alexandra continue to represent the rigid racism and social class prejudices of the Old South. Scout is the narrator of the novel, which is told entirely from her point of view, only as an adult relating the story in flashback, and her liberal sympathies are clear from the outset.
Bloom, Harold. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Infobase Publishing, 2007.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. HarperCollins, 1960, 1988.
McElaney, Hugh, “’Just One Kind of Folks’: The Normalizing Power of Disability in To Kill a Mockingbird in Michael J. Meyer (ed). Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: New Essays. Scarecrow Press, 2010: 211-30.
Murphy, Mary McDonagh. Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. HarperCollins, 2010.
Pritchard, M.S. Case Study 3: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study Online Ethics Center, 2006.
Stevens, Robert O. The Family Saga in the South: Generations and Destinies. Louisiana State University Press, 1995.