Tom Robinson's trial bears striking parallels to the "Scottsboro Trial," one of the most famous-or infamous-court cases in American history. Both the fictional and the historical cases take place in the 1930s, a time of turmoil and change in America, and both occur in Alabama. In both, too, the defendants were African-American men, the accusers white women. In both instances the charge was rape. In addition, other substantial similarities between the fictional and historical trials become apparent.
A study of the Scottsboro trials will sharpen the reader's understanding of To Kill a Mockingbird. Both the historical trial(s) and the fictional one reflect the prevailing attitudes of the time, and the novel explores the social and legal problems that arise because of those attitudes.
First, it is essential to understand the social and economic climate of the 1930s. The country was in what has been called the Great Depression. Millions of people had lost their jobs, their homes, their businesses, or their land, and everything that made up their way of life. In every American city of any size, long "bread lines" of the unemployed formed to receive basic foodstuffs for themselves and their families, their only means of subsistence.
Many people lived in shanty towns, their shelters made of sheet metal and scrap lumber lean-tos. All over America it was common to see unemployed men and women riding the rails, looking for work, shelter, and food-for anything that offered some means of subsistence, some sense of dignity. It was a time when even a full-time employee, such as a mill worker, earned barely enough to live on. In fact, in 1931 a person working 55 or 60 hours a week in Alabama and other places would earn only about $156 annually.
The economic collapse of the 1930s resulted in ferocious rivalry for the very few jobs that became available. Consequently, the ill will between black and white people (which had existed ever since the Civil War) intensified, as each group competed with the other for the few available jobs. One result was that incidents of lynchings--primarily of African-Americans--continued. Here, lynching should be defined as the murder of a person by a group of people who set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner outside the legal system.
It was in such a distressing social and economic climate that the Scottsboro case (and Tom Robinson's case) unfolded.
On March 25, 1931, several groups of white and black men and two white women were riding the rails from Tennessee to Alabama in various open and closed railroad cars designed to carry freight and gravel. At one point on the trip, the black and white men began fighting. One white man would later testify that the African-Americans started the fight, and another white man would later claim that the white men had started the fight. In any case, most of the white men were thrown off the train. When the train arrived at Paint Rock, Alabama, all those riding the rails-including nine black men, at least one white man, and the two white women--were arrested, probably on charges of vagrancy. The white women remained under arrest in jail for several days, pending charges of vagrancy and possible violation of the Mann Act. The Mann Act prohibited the taking of a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, like prostitution. Because Victoria Price was a known prostitute, the police were tipped off (very likely by the mother of the underaged Ruby Bates) that the two women were involved in a criminal act when they left Tennessee for Alabama. Upon leaving the train, the two women immediately accused the African-American men of raping them in an open railroad car (referred to as a "gondola") that was carrying gravel (or, as it was called, "chert").
The trial of the nine men began on April 6, 1931, only twelve days after the arrest, and continued through April 9, 1931. The chief witnesses included the two women accusers, one white man who had remained on the train and corroborated their accusations, another acquaintance of the women who refused to corroborate their accusations, the physician who examined the women, and the accused nine black men. The accused claimed that they had not even been in the same car with the women, and the defense attorneys also argued that one of the accused was blind and another too sickly to walk unassisted and thus could not have committed such a violent crime. On April 9, 1931, eight of the nine were sentenced to death; a mistrial was declared for the ninth because of his youth. The executions were suspended pending court appeals, which eventually reached the Supreme Court of the United States.
On November 7, 1932, the United States Supreme Court ordered new trials for the Scottsboro defendants because they had not had adequate legal representation.
On March 27, 1933, the new trials ordered by the Court began in Decatur, Alabama, with the involvement of two distinguished trial participants: a famous New York City defense lawyer named Samuel S. Leibowitz, who would continue to be a major figure in the various Scottsboro negotiations for more than a decade; and judge James E. Horton, who would fly in the face of community sentiment by the unusual actions he took in the summer of 1933.
In this second attempt to resolve the case, the trial for the first defendant lasted almost two weeks instead of only a few hours, as it had in 1931. And this time the chief testimony included the carefully examined report of two physicians, whose examination of the women within two hours of the alleged crime refuted the likelihood that multiple rapes had occurred. Testimony was also given by one of the women, Ruby Bates, who now openly denied that she or her friend, Victoria Price, had ever been raped. As a result of this, as well as of material brought out by investigations and by cross-examinations of the witnesses of Samuel Leibowitz, the character and honesty of accuser Victoria Price came under more careful scrutiny.
On April 9, 1933, the first of the defendants, Haywood Patterson, was again found guilty of rape and sentenced to execution. The execution was delayed, however; and six days after the original date set for Patterson's execution, one of the most startling events of the trial took place: local judge James Horton effectively overturned the conviction of the jury and, in a meticulous analysis of the evidence that had been presented, ordered a new trial on the grounds that the evidence presented did not warrant conviction. (It is probably not a coincidence that Judge Horton lost an election in the fall following his reversal of the jury's verdict.)
Despite judge Horton's unprecedented action, the second defendant, Clarence Norris, was tried in late 1933 and was found guilty as charged; but his execution was delayed pending appeal.
During this time all the defendants remained in prison, and not for two more years was any further significant action taken as Attorney Leibowitz filed appeals to higher courts. Finally, on April 1, 1935, the United States Supreme Court reversed the convictions of Patterson and Norris on the grounds that qualified African-Americans had been systematically excluded from all juries in Alabama, and that they had been specifically excluded in this case.
However, even this decision by the Supreme Court was not the end of the trials, for on May 1, 1935, Victoria Price swore out new warrants against the nine men.
Primary documents related to the case afford several avenues of comparison between the Scottsboro trials and Tom Robinson's trial in To Kill a Mockingbird. This is in addition to the more obvious parallels of time (1930s), place (Alabama), and charges (rape of white women by African-American men). First, the threat of lynching is common to both cases. Second, there is a similarity between the novel's Atticus Finch and the real-life judge James E. Horton, both of whom acted in behalf of black men on trial in defiance of their communities' wishes at a time of high feeling. In several instances, the words of the Alabama judge remind the reader of Atticus Finch's address to the jury and his advice to his children. Third, the accusers in both instances were very poor, working-class women who had secrets that the charges of rape were intended to cover up. Therefore, the veracity or believability of the accusers in both cases became an issue.
In order to keep straight the people and events in this complicated case, a brief list of the main characters and a brief chronology of main events follow.
Claudia Durst. Understanding To Kill A Mockingbird. The
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