The Scottsboro Boys with their lawyer and guards (UPI photo, March, 1933).
Credit: Courtesy of Famous American Trials at the Univesity of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.
In an August 1960 book review, The Atlantic Monthly’s Phoebe Adams described To Kill A Mockingbird as “sugar-water served with humor. . .”
Sugar-water? Far from it.
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird highlights instances of heroism and courage in a small Alabama town riddled with the poverty and racial tensions characteristic of the south in 1935. The novel focuses on the Finch family over the course of two years—lawyer and father Atticus Finch; his ten-year-old son, Jem; and his six-year-old daughter, Jean Louise, aka Scout. Scout serves as the narrator of the book; her narration is based on her memories of the events leading up to, during, and after her father’s defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Through Scout’s inexperienced eyes (she is only eight at the conclusion of the novel), the reader encounters a world where people are judged by their race, inherited ideas of right and wrong dominate, and justice does not always prevail. Through the novel, Lee strives to illustrate the racial climate of the South in the 1930s, a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land, racial segregation was entrenched, and mob rule could chew up and spit out the individual.
By observing Atticus Finch’s responses to the threats and gibes of the anti-Tom Robinson faction and his sensitive treatment towards Tom Robinson and his family and friends, the reader—again through Scout’s eyes—discovers what it means to behave morally—to do the right thing—in the face of tremendous social pressure. By observing her father, Scout gradually discovers that moral courage is both more complicated and more difficult to enact than the physical courage most familiar and understandable to children.
In short, To Kill A Mockingbird reveals the heroic nature of acting with moral courage when adhering to social mores would be far less dangerous. At a time in the South when it was outrageous and practically unthinkable for a white person to look at the world from a minority’s perspective, Harper Lee has Atticus explain to Scout: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" (36); for Atticus Finch, climbing into someone’s skin and walking around in it represents true courage.
Lesson One asks students to read To Kill A Mockingbird carefully with an eye for all instances and manifestations of courage, but particularly those of moral courage. Lesson Two also requires students to study select court transcripts and other primary source material from the second Scottsboro Boys Trial of 1933, a continuation of the first trial in which two young white women wrongfully accused nine African-American youths of rape.
Students should read the eight-page "REPORT ON THE SCOTTSBORO, ALA. CASE" made by Miss Hollace Ransdall for the American Civil Liberties Union on May 27, 1931. Miss Ransdall, a teacher and a social activist, was invited by the American Civil Liberties Union to investigate the first of the Scottsboro Boys trials in 1931 and its aftermath. She traveled throughout northern Alabama and southern Tennessee interviewing as many individuals she could who had been involved in (namely the accusers, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price), or who had observed first hand, the case. For this activity students should compare Miss Ransdall’s point of view of the Scottsboro Boys Trial with that of Scout’s view of Tom Robinson’s trial, chapters 18-20. Both accounts are in first person. How does Miss Ransdall’s adult point of view of a rape case—examined second hand—compare with Scout’s first-hand, child’s point of view of Tom Robinson’s case? Does one narration have strengths that the other does not have? Do any of Miss Ransdall’s observations stand out as being courageous in their honesty for the time in which they were made? Do any of Scout’s observations about her father highlight his own moral courage? Does her reference to him as Atticus emphasize his role as a moral arbiter?
See Linder’s website for comparing the length of time the Scottsboro Trials took with that of Tom Robinson’s trial in TkaM. What does the fact that Haywood Patterson was tried 4 times say to you about the trial itself and the participants involved? Compare his treatment in the trials with Tom Robinson’s treatment in his trial. What does the reader’s perception of the relative speed of Tom Robinson’s conviction suggest about the jury? How does our perception compare with Atticus’ belief that the length of the jury deliberation was actually a victory of sorts?
Haywood Patterson—Tom Robinson; Victoria Price & Ruby Bates—Mayella Ewell; Judge Horton—Atticus Finch.
Using the Douglas Linder website students should read the biographical information of Haywood Patterson, Victoria Price, Ruby Bates, and Judge Horton. Students should also read the court transcripts for Patterson, Price, and Bates along with Judge Horton’s “Warning to Potential Lynchers” and his “Instructions to the Jury on April 8, 1933” from the second trial of Haywood Patterson, Alabama vs. Patterson, March-April 1933.
Download and distribute the PDF charts. On chart 1 (there is also an interactive of this chart), students should, in column 2, note of these historical characters’ distinguishing traits, and in columns 3 and 4 instances of courage or cowardice. On chart 2, students should describe the similarities or differences they find between the historical and fictional characters of TKaM especially in terms of courage: Haywood Patterson and Tom Robinson; Victoria Price and Mayella Ewell, and Ruby Bates and Mayella Ewell; Judge Horton and Atticus Finch. In what ways does a fictional account of courtroom drama differ from a more historical account?
Students should read the three (“Excerpts from Summations”) and consider the following questions:
Choose one of the following essay topics.
Topic 1. Discuss the various types of courage manifested in To Kill A Mockingbird and in the Scottsboro Trials
Topic 2. Based on your readings of an actual court case (The Scottsboro Trials), does Atticus Finch’s courageous defense of Tom Robinson seem realistic or overly idealistic? Explain.
Research another fictional or historical account of courage in relation to the Civil Rights movement (examples: Emmett Till’s mother’s insistence that his lynched body be displayed to the world; Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus). What actions taken were courageous? What were the circumstances that shaped the courageous act? Students might write a report about the event, or for a creative writing exercise, they might write a fictional account based on the research.
Watch the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird! Tell the students that the American Film Institute polled Americans for whom they considered the top 50 heroes in American film, and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch won!
5-8 class periods