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Professor Bradley Greenburg from Northeastern Illinois University explains the historical and cultural context in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird | Context


Published in 1960, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate success, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The novel was turned into a popular motion picture in 1962. At the Academy Awards actor Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch.

This tale of racism and social injustice is especially poignant because of its six-year-old narrator, Scout Finch, who shares the events through her innocent but observant eyes.

What has solidified the novel as one of the most influential in American literature is its treatment of race relations, as seen in Tom Robinson's rape case. The novel's other subplot focuses on prejudice against the town's reclusive resident Boo Radley. These two subplots converge to convey powerful themes of tolerance and justice.

The novel and movie were released during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. The first sit-in protest against segregation occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960. Three years after that lunch counter sit-in, Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a defense of nonviolent civil disobedience. A few months later he led the March on Washington and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. That a book and a film could resonate with the country amid such controversy suggested that the movement toward equality, as Atticus said, might be "the shadow of a beginning."

To Kill a Mockingbird remains a thought-provoking and timely tale of cultural struggle as the United States continues to work toward equality on all fronts.

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