Nelle Harper Lee was born 28 April 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children (three girls and a boy) born to Amasa Coleman Lee and Francis Cunningham Finch Lee. Monroeville was a small town, similar in many ways to Maycomb, Alabama, the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird. Both had stately courthouses, neighbors who knew everyone's business, and a mysterious, reclusive resident who fascinated and terrified local children. Lee has stated that Mockingbird was not an autobiographical novel, but that she borrowed scenes and characters from her childhood to flesh out Maycomb's landscape.
When Lee was in kindergarten, she befriended an eccentric young boy named Truman Streckfus Persons. The two bonded instantly and maintained a lifelong friendship. Lee based her character of Dill, the oddly articulate child fabulist, on her good friend Truman. When Truman wrote his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, under the pen name Truman Capote, he based the tomboyish character of Isabel on his friend Harper Lee.
Lee was also a lawyer's daughter, like the child protagonist of Mockingbird, Scout. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, once defended two black men, a father and son, who were accused of murdering a white store clerk. Like Atticus Finch, he was unable to secure an acquittal for his defendants and the two men were hanged. Soon after, he left criminal law to become a title lawyer. At that time in American history, people of different races were not equally protected under the law. In the South, Jim Crow laws mandated segregation in all public facilities from 1876 until 1965, and therefore sanctioned discrimination against black people throughout Lee's childhood. Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat on the bus until Harper Lee was nearly 30. Fear and a lack of understanding between the races meant that when a black person went on trial, he was often judged not by a jury of his peers but by twelve white men who had grown up believing that black people were inherently different from them—and not for the better.
We don't know if Lee shared Scout's keen perceptions as a child, but as a lawyer's daughter she certainly would've been aware of several cases that demonstrated the inequities of the pre-Civil Rights Movement South. In addition to her father's case, the Lee family would surely have talked about the famous Scottsboro Boys Trial, which began in 1931. In that case, which may have inspired Tom Robinson's trial in Mockingbird, two impoverished white women accused nine young black men of rape. Eight of the boys were convicted and spent years in prison before one of the women confessed to making up the story. The trial made headlines and drew passionate opinions from all sides. In May 1931, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a young woman named Hollace Ransdall down to Scottsboro, Alabama, to investigate the case. After interviewing dozens of residents, both white and black, Ransdall produced an insightful report that captured the violent emotions the trial stirred up:
It is hard to conceive that anything but kindly feelings and gentle manners toward all mankind can stir the hearts of the citizens of Scottsboro. It came as a shock, therefore, to see these pleasant faces stiffen, these laughing mouths grow narrow and sinister, those soft eyes become cold and heard because the question was mentioned of a fair trial for nine young Negroes terrified and quite alone. Suddenly these kindly-looking mouths were saying the most frightful things. … to see these men and women transformed by blind, unreasoning antipathy so that their lips parted and their eyes glowed with lust for the blood of black children, was a sight to make one untouched by the spell of violent prejudice shrink.5
Her words remind us of Atticus Finch's attempt to explain Tom Robinson's conviction to his children: "There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins."6
In 1944, Lee left home for Huntingdon College, a women's school in Alabama, where she joined a sorority. "In the purely feminine aquifer of sorority life," one of her biographers wrote, the eternally-tomboyish Lee "floated like a drop of motor oil."7She left Huntingdon the following year and enrolled in law school at the University of Alabama. In 1949, she quit law school and joined Truman Capote in New York City to pursue a career as a writer. Lee then spent a few years working as an airline reservation clerk, fiddling with a novel on the side but not publishing anything. Then, during Christmas 1956, she received a gift that changed her life. Two close friends pooled their money and presented her with a year's salary so she could quit her job and concentrate on her writing full-time. "A full, fair chance for a new life. Not given me by an act of generosity, but by an act of love. Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say," Lee wrote later of her friends' generous gift. "I would do my best not to fail them."8