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MA: Studies in Literary and Cultural Encounters

MA Course: Contemporary Novel and Culture

Professor: Mly Mustapha El Mamaoui


Racism in John Grisham’s Novel A Time to Kill (1989)


After the emancipation of black people and abolitionism, other measures have been
taken to control black people to keep them under the authority of white people. One of the
measures was the Jim Crew Laws which segregated black and white people institutionally.
Beside, the existence of secret organizations such as Ku Klux Klan has played a significant
role in spreading hatred among white and black people. John Grisham’s novel A Time to Kill
addresses the issue of justice system and how it functions; a deeper analysis also demonstrates
that the author posits that the residue of the tradition of slavery, especially racism in the South
is still recurring despite the many changes that the American society has undergone after the
abolition of slavery and the civil rights movements. This paper tackles the issue of racism in
post American civil rights movement novel, A Time to Kill, and traces how racism is still
haunting the American South, especially the Ford County despite the tremendous changes that
the American society has experienced after desegregation and civil rights movements. Before
delving into the main topic of this paper, I shall provide a brief comment about the author, the
historical context and the main story of the novel.

About the Author

John Grisham was born in 1955 in Arkansas, United States. Despite the poverty of his
family, he managed to go to Mississippi State University, and he subsequently went to
Mississippi University School of Law in 1981. He later pursued a career in criminal law for
about ten years when he finally decided to retire and dedicate his full time to writing. He also
served in the House of Representatives for six years, starting from 1984. Grisham started his
writing career in 1984, and his first novel, A time to Kill, was published 1989. “His works
have been translated in at least 42 languages, and he is number one best seller author”i. He is

also an attorney, politician, and activist best known for his popular legal thrillers. He has
shaped the legal thriller into a separate and very special genre and many of his novels have
been adopted into moviesii. Grisham has other famous works, notably The Firm, The
Chamber, The Pelican Field, The Client, and The Runaway Jury.

The Historical Context

John Grisham’s novel A Time to Kill depicts ethnic and racial tensions between African
Americans and the white supremacists after the civil rights movement specifically the 1980’s.
Despite the fact that one hundred years have passed after the Civil War in America and
despite the civil rights movement in the 1960, racial discrimination and ethnic tensions are
still prevalent in the United States. The fictional Ford County that is depicted in John
Grisham’s novel, A Time to Kill, is replete with the effects of old tradition of slavery1, and
African Americans still experience the indignities of inequality and the white supremacy is
still present even after the civil rights of movement, which was meant to bring social
economic and political equality between African Americans and the whiles at all levels.

The story

A Time to Kill takes place in the Southern States where the white supremacist
organization, Ku Klux Klan2, is still in action and where racial injustice is still haunting the
community. The novel starts with a vicious rape of a ten-year-old black girl by two white
men, Cobb and Pete Willard. Carl Lee, the father of Tonya, the little girl, is determined to
retaliate. The criminals are caught by Sheriff Ozzie, an African American, yet Carl Lee
murders the rapists of his daughter in the town courthouse. Carl, as a consequence, is
sentenced to death. Jake Brigance, an ambitious white young lawyer, offers to help his close
black friend Carl Lee in the court, and made Carl Lee plead not guilty for the reason of
insanity. Jake’s adjuvant in the case include his friend Harry Rex, Ellen Roark, law student
who is experienced in death penalty cases, and his previous supervisor Lucien Wilbanks.

Terry Jones quotes Franklin Hope. The latter argues that during slavery, Southern States set up black codes to
control the slaves. A slave, for instance does not have the right to stand in courts, he could not be a party of the
law suit, and he could not give testimony in the court except against another slave or a free Negro. He also
could not strike a white person even in self-defense, but the killing of a slave was rarely regarded as a murder.
A secret society of white Southerners (white supremacists) in the United States; it was formed in the 19th
century to resist the emancipation of slaves; it used terrorist tactics to suppress Black people and any party
that opposed its agenda (word web dictionary).

Rufus Buckley is the prosecuting attorney and Omar Noose is a white judge who will
perform the trial. Buckley defends death penalty and hopes to win the case and strives to gain
fame that would ensue after the win of the case. He also hopes to be elected as a governor.
Meanwhile, Billy Ray, Cobb’s brother and Freddy Lee Cobb, wants to take revenge for the
killing of his brother by Carl Lee. For this purpose, he calls for the help of KKK which
subsequently perpetrates many destructive acts against all parties in favour of Carl Lee’s

The task of Jake seems tough, and his life is being under threat, his family, and all the
people who work with him are targeted by the Kkk. Jake, however, insists on going on
defending his fellow, Carl Lee. The case of Carl Lee brought the community together and the
rape of the little girl affects both the white community and the black community who stand
together in one voice, against the kkk claims, demanding freedom for Carl Lee. The outcry of
the community brings it into conflict with the Klan, and clashes and protests increase each
day and consequently the American National Guard intervenes to keep peace. Under these
intense clashes and protests, the judges in the court are in a dilemma. Which way will they
go? Sentence Carl Lee to death of set him free.

It is argued that A time to kill is “inspired by a real case in the court where Grisham
witnessed the case of the rape and assault of 12 year old Marcie Scott and her 16 year old
sister Julie Scott”iii. Based on this case, Grisham draws another scenario posing question that
stands as the focal point of his novel A Time to kill. What if the father kills the rapists of his
daughter; is he just in killing of the rapists of his daughter?

Racism in A time to Kill

The first event in the novel draws our attention to the issues of racism and hatred in the
deep South. The abuse of the little black girl signals the sharp divide between African
Americans and the whites. This divide is further compounded when Carl Lee Hailey retaliates
and murders the two white men who brutally abused his daughter, and as a consequence he is
charged with murder and is trapped into a judicial system that is to a great extent influenced
by racism, particularly that he should stand before an all White or almost all-White jury.
Many questions come up to the surface: if the little girl were white and abused by a black man
and the father of the little white girl killed the black man, what would have happened? Will
the judges use the same scale in prosecuting the white men? What will a white father do in
case his daughter is abused viciously by a black man? Is Carl Lee killing f the white men

justified? The latter question is the guiding question in the novel as it stimulate a controversy
that and opposing opinions, some of which are driven by racial prejudices and others are
motivated by what people really believe is the truth.

The white supremacist secret group, Ku Klux Klan, prevails through the novel, A Time
to kill. The presence of this group further ignites the racial tensions between the white people
and the African Americans. The KKK members think that black people have got much
protection and enjoy far more rights than the whites do, and they plot to regain the supremacy
of the white people over the black people. This is better illustrated in the quote below:

The niggers have plenty of protection nowadays-the NAACP, ACLU, a

thousand other civil rights groups, plus the courts and the government. Hell,
white folks ain’t got a chance, except for the Klan. Who else would march and
stand up for white people. All the laws favor the niggers, and the liberal
nigger-loving politicians keep making more laws against white people.
Somebody’s got to stand up for them (A Time to Kill 6)

After the killing of the two white men, the KKK gets involved and starts its activity and
is determined to take revenge and to “raise so much hell in Ford County this summer that no
juror with any common sense would consider voting to acquit the nigger”(A Time to Kill 12),
Carl Lee Hailey. The Klan takes action against anybody, black or white, who is involved in
helping Carl Lee Hailey and Jake during the trial. Hence, the acts of the Klan are basically
motivated by racist drives. Hatred towards African Americans generates even violence against
white people who back up the cause of Carl Lee in particular and the cause of African
Americans in general.

A Time to Kill seems at the very first sight to deal solely with the issue of justice;
however, the focal point of the novel seems to be more related to the issue of racism. Besides
the blatant racist acts by the white rapists, and the destructive activities of the Klan, the novel
also testifies that the issue goes beyond the matter of justice and equality to cover racism as
the main drive behind the prosecution of Carl Lee Hailey. In his novel, Grisham states
underscoring that Carl Lee Hailey’s trial is not simply about a fair justice, but it’s about

To his people he (Carl Lee) was on trial for one reason only. Sure he killed
those boys, but that wasn’t the issue. If he was white, he would receive civic

awards for what he did. They would half-heartedly prosecute him, but with a
white jury the trial would be a joke. Carl Lee was on trial because he was
black. And if they convicted him, it would be because he was black. No other
reason. They believed that. (A time to Kill 336)

Despite the existence of hostile forces that perpetuate racism and hatred, Grisham’s
novel also features some positive relationships which echo the change that is taking place in
the Ford County in the South. One of the remarkable relationships is that existing between
Carl Lee, a black African American, and Jake Brigance, a white American. Despite the
difference, both characters seem to transcend the racial and social difference and grow up into
a coherent entity working for the same cause, equality between African Americans and the

The prosecution of Carl lee also generates sympathy from the African American
community as well as the White community. The plead “not guilty” for the reason of insanity
that Carl made is supported by both black and white people since the brutal abuse influences
any human being who has strong convictions and a sense of humanity. Thus the prosecution
effects in a public outcry which influences the jurors’ decision. Deputy Looney, despite the
fact that Carl Lee shot him when he shot the white rapists, acknowledges that he holds no
scorn towards Carl Lee and that he will do the same if his daughter is raped. He states “I mean
I don’t blame him for what he did. Those boys raped his little girl. I gotta little girl. Somebody
rapes her and he’s a dead dog. I’ll blow him away, just like Carl Lee did. We oughtta give
him a trophy.”


In sum, A time to kill depicts moments featuring racism and hatred between African
Americans and white Americans. More than twenty years after the civil rights movement and
the desegregation which planted the first seeds of racial equality between the two races,
racism and hatred remain haunting both the African American community and the white. A
Time to Kill perhaps suggests that racism and hatred is a human condition that will appear
every now and then in all human interaction. It also emphasizes the relativity of justice; what
is established as a law that governs a community is subject to revision according to the
circumstances. Besides, A Time to Kill appeals to the individuals, both black and white, to
resort to their true convictions and examine their prejudices towards each other, think beyond
race, religion or color and seek equality at all levels. This latter idea is manifest when Jake

Brigance, a white lawyer, asks the jurors and the people to imagine that this little black girl
who has been harshly abused by the white men were white. Once in the shoes of the girls’
father, the jurors and the people, white and black, feel what any father whose girl is abused
would feel, and consequently the jurors let Carl Lee loose.

"John Grisham." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
Pringle, Mary Beth. Revisiting John Grisham: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007. PDF.
"A Time to Kill Summary & Study Guide." BookRags. BookRags, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.

Works Cited

 Jones, Terry. "Institutional Racism in the United States." Oxford University Press
OXFORD JOURNALS 19.2 (1974): 218-25. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

 Pringle, Mary Beth. Revisiting John Grisham: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT:
Greenwood, 2007. PDF.

 John Grisham." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

 "A Time to Kill Summary & Study Guide." BookRags. BookRags, n.d. Web. 01 Jan.

 Grisham, John. "A Time to Kill." (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.