The themes of "A Lesson Before Dying" include the effects of racial discrimination and unjust incrimination. "A Lesson Before Dying" was written by Ernest J. Gaines in 1993. However, the novel is set in the South after World War II but before the Civil Rights Movement.
The story begins with a man named Mr. Grope being killed by two black men. Although he is an innocent bystander, a man named Jefferson is accused of the crime. During Jefferson's trial, his attorney asks the jury how justice can be carried out when an innocent man is standing trial for murder. His questions go unanswered, and Jefferson is ultimately convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.
While awaiting execution, Jefferson forms a bond with a local schoolteacher named Grant. Grant also forms a friendship with the deputy who arrested Jefferson, but the two men hold different opinions about Jefferson's innocence. Grant tries to help Jefferson, but he is repeatedly dismissed based on the fact that he is one of the only black men in the town. Jefferson's execution goes ahead as planned despite many attempts to grant him a new trial. As the novel ends, the deputy laments the fact that nothing more could be done and questions whether or not Jefferson really did commit the crime.