Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird during a very tense time racially in her home state of Alabama. The South was still segregated, forcing blacks to use separate facilities apart from those used by whites, in almost every aspect of society. The Civil Rights Movement began to pick up steam when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Following her bold defiance, Marin Luther King, Jr., became the leader of the movement, and the issue began to gain serious national attention. Clearly, a prime subject of To Kill a Mockingbird, namely the injustice of racism and inequality in the American South, was highly relevant at the time of its publication.
Interestingly, Harper Lee decided to set the novel in the Depression era of the 1930s. The main character, Scout, is based on Lee's own childhood, and Dill is most likely based on her childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote. By placing her novel in the 1930s, Lee provided her readers with a historical background for current events of the time, and in doing so she exposed the deeply rooted history of the civil rights struggle in the South.
In addition to a biting analysis of race relations, To Kill A Mockingbird is also a story about Scout's maturation. Coming-of-age stories are also known as members of the genre Bildungsroman, which tends to depict main characters who take large steps in personal growth due to life lessons or specific trauma. In Lee's novel, Scout Finch works to come to terms with the facts of her society, including social inequality, racial inequality, and the expectation that she act as a "proper Southern lady." Scout is a tomboy who resents efforts to alter her behavior in order to make her more socially accepted. In the 1930s, gender inequality also reigned, and women were not given equal rights. Women in the South were expected to be delicate and dainty, concepts that Scout abhors; and women were not allowed to serve on juries in Maycomb, according to the novel. Scout loves adventure and can punch as well as any boy in her class. She finds it hard to fit into the mold of a Southern lady. Miss Maudie is a strong role model for her in that Miss Maudie also defies some of their society's expectations and maintains her individuality as a Southern woman. But Scout eventually succumbs--in her own way--to social pressure.
The novel's characters are forced to examine the world (or at least the town) in which they live. Through observing their society and interacting with people such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, they come to understand more about true bravery, cowardice, and humanity.