Welcome to small town Alabama, circa 1930s. It's a friendly town, with lots of old ladies baking cakes and small-town sheriffs saying folksy things.
Oh, and it also has morphine-addicted old ladies; abusive families living by the dump; and a pretty nasty racial divide.
To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the fictional small Southern town of Maycomb in the 1930s (Tom's trial takes place in 1935). Slavery and the Civil War of the 1860s still loom large in the rearview mirror, but the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s is just a wee little speck on the horizon. And Maycomb is going nowhere fast:
A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. (1.10)
Lots in its own little world, Maycomb doesn't know what's happening elsewhere and doesn't care. Few people move there (not much reason to) and few people leave (why bother?).
This stagnation means that the same families have been around for generations, and family reputations have become unquestioned facts.
Thus the dicta No Crawford Minds His Own Business, Every Third Merriweather Is Morbid, The Truth Is Not in the Delafields, All the Bufords Walk Like That, were simply guides to daily living: never take a check from a Delafield without a discreet call to the bank; Miss Maudie Atkinson's shoulder stoops because she was a Buford; if Mrs. Grace Merriweather sips gin out of Lydia E. Pinkham bottles it's nothing unusual—her mother did the same. (13.32)
Are these stereotypes accurate descriptions of family traits, passed down through inheritance or parenting—or are they just self-fulfilling prophecies? Do people just see what they expect to see? We don't know. Jem has a different classification of the various species of Homo Maycombis, but it's no less rigid:
"There's four kinds of folks in the world. There's the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there's the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes." (23.103)
The problem with either classification system is that there's no room for individuality and independent thought, let alone breaking with the past. The way things are in Maycomb is the way things have always been, and there's not much anyone can do about it.
And the way things have always been is racially segregated. Racism, as Atticus says after he loses the Robinson case, is "just as much Maycomb County as missionary teas" (22.11). The African-Americans have their own settlement on the outskirts of white Maycomb, and their own church and cemetery outside the city limits. At Tom's trial the African-Americans sit on one side of the town square, and the whites on the other. Inside the courtroom, the whites have the good seats on the floor while the African-Americans are up in the balcony. Other than a few border-crossers like Mr. Dolph Raymond, whites and blacks in Maycomb don't live together, pray together, eat together, or even die together.
It's like the town is one big middle school dance, except that one side gets to give the other side the death penalty.
This is a town where separate is definitely not equal. When Atticus acts as if Tom Robinson has just as much right to a fair trial as a white man, some people are angry—as if human rights were a cake with a limited number of slices.
But there are a few who are more disturbed that Bob Ewell is able to make the court enforce his false accusation. While the anti-Tom Maycomb is the dominant one, the tiny pro-Tom faction refuses to be erased from the town community. As Miss Maudie says:
"The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us… The handful of people in this town with background, that's who they are." (24.81)
This "handful of people" can't save Tom Robinson, but they might push Maycomb—struggling all the way—just a little farther down the path to racial equality.