Much of the novel’s conflict is related to the 1954 Supreme Court decision “Brown v. Board of Education,” which declared state-sponsored segregation to be unconstitutional. This meant that all kinds of whites-only Southern institutions (like schools) suddenly had to include blacks, and many Southern whites resisted this change. These whites resented the federal government and Supreme Court imposing rules on them from the outside—an echo of one of the Civil War’s main causes—and reacted in a backlash against both the Court and the black citizens the Court was trying to help. Lee then shows how Brown v. Board of Education played out in a small Alabama town like Maycomb. There is no racial violence portrayed, but the white men form a “citizens’ council” to stand against integration, and the council meetings are full of racist hate-speech. In response Maycomb’s blacks become distrustful and afraid of the whites. This is most poignantly shown by how Calpurnia distances herself from Jean Louise, whom she raised like her own child. There is no real political action shown in the novel, but Southern politics play out in casual, everyday conversation, as with the women at Jean Louise’s “Coffee,” who discuss the “Communist” Supreme Court, how the NAACP wants to “destroy the South,” and make jokes about the stupidity of their black workers.
As with To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman also involves lots of descriptions of society and daily life in a small Southern town. Lee relates the history of Maycomb County and gives backstories for many of the story’s characters. The town’s ugly, racist side always reveals itself in various ways, but Lee also spends lots of time describing more innocent subjects, like the unique personalities of Maycomb and the details of small-town life.
Southern Politics and Society ThemeTracker
Southern Politics and Society Quotes in Go Set a Watchman
Henry is not and never will be suitable for you. We Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash, which is exactly what Henry’s parents were when they were born and were all their lives. You can’t call them anything better. The only reason Henry’s like he is now is because your father took him in hand when he was a boy, and because the war came along and paid for his education. Fine a boy as he is, the trash won’t wash out of him.
Mr. O’Hanlon was born and bred in the South, went to school there, married a Southern lady, lived all his life there, and his main interest today was to uphold the Southern Way of Life and no niggers and no Supreme Court was going to tell him or anybody else what to do… a race as hammer-headed as… essential inferiority… kinky woolly heads… still in the trees… greasy smelly… marry your daughters… mongrelize the race… mongrelize… save the South… back to Africa…
She heard her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.
Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.
Jean Louise sat in the car, staring at the steering wheel. Why is it that everything I have ever loved on this earth has gone away from me in two days’ time? Would Jem turn his back on me? She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks. She raised me, and she doesn’t care.
It was not always like this, I swear it wasn’t. People used to trust each other for some reason, I’ve forgotten why. They didn’t watch each other like hawks then. I wouldn’t get looks like that going up those steps ten years ago. She never wore her company manners with one of us… when Jem died, her precious Jem, it nearly killed her…
“Jean Louise, nobody in Maycomb goes to see Negroes any more, not after what they’ve been doing to us. Besides being shiftless now they look at you sometimes with open insolence, and as far as depending on them goes, why that’s out.
“The NAACP’s come down here and filled ‘em with poison till it runs out of their ears… You do not realize what is going on. We’ve been good to ‘em, we’ve bailed ‘em out of jail and out of debt since the beginning of time, we’ve made work for ‘em when there was no work, we’ve encouraged ‘em to better themselves, they’ve gotten civilized, but my dear—that veneer of civilization’s so thin that a bunch of uppity Yankee Negroes can shatter a hundred years’ progress in five….”
The South’s in its last agonizing birth pain. It’s bringing forth something new and I’m not sure I like it, but I won’t be here to see it. You will. Men like me and my brother are obsolete and we’ve got to go, but it’s a pity we’ll carry with us the meaningful things of this society—there were some good things in it.
Jean Louise, I want you to listen carefully. What we’ve talked about today—I want to tell you something and see if you can hook it all together. It’s this: what was incidental to the issue in our War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now, and is incidental to the issue in your own private war.
“I’m only trying to make you see beyond men’s acts to their motives. A man can appear to be a part of something not-so-good on its face, but don’t take it upon yourself to judge him unless you know his motives as well…”
Jean Louise said, “Are you saying go along with the crowd and then when the time comes—”
Henry checked her: “Look, honey. Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?”
“Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?”
“…Of course I know that, but I heard something once. I heard a slogan and it stuck in my head. I heard ‘Equal rights for all; special privileges for none,’ and to me it didn’t mean anything but what it said. It didn’t mean one card off the top of the stack for the white man and one off the bottom for the Negro, it—”
“Atticus, the NAACP hasn’t done half of what I’ve seen in the past two days. It’s us.”
“Yes sir, us. You. Has anybody, in all the wrangling and high words over states’ rights and what kind of government we should have, thought about helping the Negroes?”
“Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
“They’re people, aren’t they? We were quite willing to import them when they made money for us.”
“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”
“The scholastic level of that school down the street, Atticus, couldn’t be any lower and you know it. They’re entitled to the same opportunities anyone else has, they’re entitled to the same chance—”
“How they’re as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they’re human. I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week’s decency.
“There was no point in saying any of this because I know you won’t give an inch and you never will. You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible, but don’t let it worry you, because the joke is entirely on me. You’re the only person I think I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for.”
“You’re color blind, Jean Louise,” he said. “You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people.”
“You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”
“You mean Atticus needs me?”
“Not altogether. I was thinking of Maycomb.”
“That’d be great, with me on one side and everybody else on the other. If life’s an endless flow of the kind of talk I heard this morning, I don’t think I’d exactly fit in.”
“That’s the one thing about here, the South, you’ve missed. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”
… “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”
“I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”