Jackson County, Alabama, Courthouse—the site of the first Scottsboro Boys trial on the morning of April 6, 1931.
We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe…But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller; the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. —To Kill a Mockingbird
Polls rank To Kill a Mockingbird second only behind the Bible as the book that makes the most difference in people’s lives. More than fifty years after its publication, this novel continues to sell over a million copies a year. Even so, teachers are concerned that important fiction such as Mockingbird will get shortchanged in the Common Core State Standards’ call to dramatically increase nonfiction texts in an already crowded curriculum. In practice, fact and fiction can work together to create an ideal application of a classic text—if the defining strengths of each are harnessed. Indeed, Mockingbird is not a classic in danger of extinction by the Common Core but an exemplary text for grades 9–10, with the potential of being infused with new life through a comparative analysis with the actual trials that inspired the novel.
The lessons of the infamous 1930s Scottsboro Boys case in which two young white women wrongfully accused nine African American youths of rape illustrate through fact what Harper Lee tried to instruct through her fiction. Both historical and fictional trials express the courage required to stand up for the Constitutional principle providing for equal justice to all under the law. In this lesson, students will perform a comparative close reading of select informational texts from the Scottsboro Boys trials alongside sections from To Kill a Mockingbird. Students analyze the two trials and the characters and arguments involved in them to see how fictional “truth” both mirrors and departs from the factual experience that inspired it.
How does the trial experience in a fictional narrative, To Kill a Mockingbird compare to the historical Scottsboro Boys trials that inspired it?
Anchor Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
In 1931, nine black youths, ranging from 13 to 19, were wrongfully convicted by all-white juries of raping two white women on a train in north Alabama. All but the youngest were sentenced to death, even though one of the women recanted her story. After numerous trials and appeals, none of the nine defendants was executed, due to the extraordinary defense of Samuel Leibowitz. Four were released when the charges against them were dropped in 1937, and gradually, one by one, by 1950, the remaining five gained their freedom. But the so-called Scottsboro Boys struggled to adapt to life as free men after the hardships they had endured in prison. The Encyclopedia of Alabama refers to the Scottsboro trials as “an unmitigated tragedy” and provides a detailed overview of this saga and its legacy. Flash forward 80 years later: The Scottsboro Boys surfaced again in the national news. On April 19, 2013, in a formal ceremony at the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, Alabama’s Governor Robert Bentley signed posthumous pardons for the entire group of young men wrongfully convicted back in the 1930s. “This is historic legislation, and it’s time to right this wrong,” Bentley said in his statement.
Since its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has paid witness to similar racial injustice. Parallels can be made between the fictional trial of Tom Robinson and the historical Scottsboro Boys case trials, which Harper Lee drew upon as inspiration for the novel. Like Scottsboro, the setting in To Kill a Mockingbird is a small town in Alabama, in the 1930s. Like the trials, the novel illustrates a time in the American South when Jim Crow was the law of the land, racial segregation was entrenched, and mob rule could chew up and spit out the individual. Harper Lee’s story reveals the heroic nature of acting with moral courage in this place during this time when it was practically unthinkable for a white person to look at the world from a minority’s perspective. The Encyclopedia of Alabama chalks up the ongoing popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird “to the message of tolerance that Lee proclaimed during an intolerant age.” The article states that this novel “has become the primary literary instrument worldwide for teaching values of racial justice, tolerance for people different from ourselves, and the need for moral courage in the face of community prejudice and ostracism.” Likewise, there are aspects of the Scottsboro Boys trials which called upon the moral courage of its participants.
For general contextual background on the 1930s in America, the EDSITEment-reviewed website, American Studies at the University of Virginia, provides a multimedia timeline. Each year in the timeline is divided by months and also by four color-coded categories: Politics and Society; Science and Technology; Arts and Culture; and World Events. Many of the items listed for each year are linked to further information in the form of images, audio, and video.
Excerpts from the following primary and secondary sources of the Scottsboro Boys trial of 1931 and the first Scottsboro Boys trial of 1933 held in Decatur, Alabama, from March through April are used in the lesson activities:
Students should have completed their initial reading of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird before commencing work on this lesson.
In the activity, students interpret firsthand accounts of the fictional and historical trials as recorded by two different witnesses. They will compare the factual trial report with the fictional trial observations to determine the character of the plaintiff(s) or accusers in both cases. This activity will also build students’ contextual knowledge of the American South in the 1930s.
Students may read the “Report on the Scottsboro, ALA. Case” (May 27, 1931) written by Miss Hollace Ransdall. Students may access the full online version or use the pdf form of the report. Tell them Ransdall was a young teacher, journalist, and activist asked by ACLU officials to travel to Alabama to investigate and report on the controversial trials of the Scottsboro Boys that had just taken place. Ransdall spent ten days in early May of 1931 interviewing a number of people involved in the case including the two plaintiffs, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. This unpublished report is a contemporaneous account of social attitudes as they existed at the time of the trial.
Have students pay special attention to the following sections and pages of the Ransdall report where the two plaintiffs, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, and their families are described in detail:
Students may review To Kill a Mockingbird, chapters 17–20 for observations made by “Scout” Finch, during the courtroom scenes of Tom Robinson’s trial. Have them pay careful attention to description of the Ewells, the plaintiff’s family in chapter 17, and Mayella’s testimony on the witness stand in chapter 18.
Note to the students that the Scottsboro Boys were put through many trials that went on for a number of years. Activity 1 relates to the observations made in the first trial in 1931.Tell students there is a lot going on in the fictional and historical trials observations. Remind them for the purposes of this activity that their sole focus should be on extracting the descriptions of the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs’ families as described by Hollace Ransdall and Scout.
Using Worksheet 1 Trial Plaintiffs Compared, have students complete a close reading of these sections of the texts to collect important details from the plaintiffs’ own testimony and reflections by other witnesses about the plaintiffs and their families.
Inform students these details are small parts of a larger picture. They will provide a basis to begin the overall comparison between the two trials and the two authors’ messages. [Note: In the Worksheet 1.1 Trial Plaintiffs Compared (Teacher’s Version), vocabulary words that may be unfamiliar to students have been highlighted and their definitions have been provided in parentheses.]
Following the close reading analysis of the plaintiffs and their families, responses should be shared by the whole class, with several questions at the bottom of Worksheet 1 focusing the discussion.
Have students consider how Miss Ransdall’s adult perspective of the plaintiffs’ Ruby and Victoria in the Scottsboro trial of 1931 may be similar to and/or different from the child’s point of view Scout had of the plaintiff Mayella in the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Students should refer back to the textual evidence gathered in Worksheet 1 to support their responses.
Have students think about what they have learned about each plaintiff and their families from the observations they have recorded. Have them write a cause and effect analysis of the plaintiffs in both trials based on their observations. Identify what factors (events, series of events, or circumstances) may have led each plaintiff to level the accusations that resulted in the arrests of the accused and their subsequent trials.
Have students analyze the motivations of other main characters (defendants, defense attorneys, and judges) in both the historical and fictional trials. Using the primary and secondary sources of the first Scottsboro trial of 1933 and excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird, have them identify descriptive passages of and quotations from each of these historical and fictional characters. For each passage and quotation, students will come up with a character trait or descriptive phrase. Then, they willcompare the corresponding sets of characters. Have them pay special attention to the instances in which these characters may have exhibited courage or cowardice.
Tell students that for the purposes of Activity 2, the Haywood Patterson trial held March through April 1933 in Decatur, Alabama under Judge James E. Horton will be considered. Have students begin with a contextual background reading to build their knowledge of main characters in this first Scottsboro trial held in 1933.
Specific links from the Douglas Linder and the Scottsboro: An American Tragedy documentary websites are provided here to direct students to specific primary and secondary sources passages related to that character in the trial:
Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro boy defendants
Samuel Leibowtiz, the defense attorney
Judge James E. Horton, the trial judge
For the comparative analysis of the corresponding three main trial characters in Tom Robinson’s trial in To Kill a Mockingbird and its aftermath, students should review chapters 17–22 in the novel. Students will find additional evidence on the character traits of both Atticus Finch and Judge John Taylor surfaces after the trial scene has concluded. Refer them to chapter 22 of the novel beginning with the line, “Indoors, when Miss Maudie wanted to say something lengthy she spread her fingers on her knees and settled her bridgework. This she did, and we waited …”
Tom Robinson, defendant
Atticus Finch, defense attorney
Judge John Taylor, trial judge
Divide students into groups of three or four and distribute Worksheet 2. Part 1 Trial Character Traits. Assign one or more sets of corresponding characters to each group of students. Have them work together to complete profiles of this set of characters in the trials using the worksheets. They should draw evidence from both the primary source and secondary source passages that describe the character of their historical and fictional figures. Have students enter short descriptive phrases, adjectives, direct quotations from each trial and its aftermath into the second column. Then have students come up with a descriptive character trait exemplified in that passage and place it in the first column.
After students have a complete list of characters traits for their set of characters entered in Worksheet 2. Part 1 they are ready to move onto Worksheet 2. Part 2. Using the appropriate spaces in the table, have students identify differences and similarities for the historical figures and their fictional counterparts. Encourage students to consider aspects of moral courage and/or cowardice which these characters may have exhibited during the trial.
Students should draw on the evidence they have gathered in their comparative analysis to share with the whole class in a follow up discussion.
Worksheets 2.1 Part 1 and Part 2. Suggested Answers are provided for the teacher. There are six worksheets with suggested answers for Part 1 under the names of each trial character and a completed table for the Part 2 comparison.
Have students refer to their completed Worksheet 2. Part 1 and Part 2 for evidence to support their answers.
Groups of students select one set of characters they have compared from the two trials. (i.e., defendants, attorneys, judges) Ask them to synthesize what they have learned about each character in a statement regarding the nature of these characters’ courage or cowardice. Be sure to have them include evidence from they have collected from primary and secondary passages and the novel in their answers. Groups should report their findings for other students to read.
Have students examine summaries of the closing remarks of the attorneys from both sides in the first trial held March through April 1933, in Decatur, Alabama, covered in Activity 2. Then have them consider the closing remarks from Atticus Finch’s defense in the fictional trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. A follow-up discussion will help students determine how these arguments reflect racial and religious prejudice in the American South of the 1930s.
Excerpts of summations and closing remarks for each of the trials can be found in the following resources:
For the prosecution:
For the defense:
To Kill a Mockingbird
For the prosecution:
Harper Lee does not relate the arguments by Mr. Gilmer for the prosecution. She has the narrator Scout and the other children outside the courtroom during this part of the trial.
For the defense:
Atticus Finch’s closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird (chapter 20)
After reading through the summaries of the closing remarks, students use Worksheet 3 to record the main points of the closing arguments for each side.
For the purposes of Activity 3, note to students, that the comparison being made will be the summations of the attorneys in the two trials (rather than comparing the closing arguments of the two opposing sides within each trial).
Tell them there are two attorneys for the prosecution, in the Scottsboro Boys trials. There is space on the Worksheet for students to record both. There are no closing remarks by the prosecution in the To Kill a Mockingbird trial. There is a summation by Samuel Leibowtiz for the defense in the Scottsboro trial 1933. Atticus Finch’s closing speech on behalf of the defense to the jury can be accessed in the To Kill a Mockingbird trial. (Worksheet 3.1. Teacher’s Version is provided.)
In a whole class discussion, have students evaluate the arguments made by each attorney, assess the strength and weaknesses of both, and consider what they reveal about societal values in the American South in the 1930s. Use the evidence gathered on Worksheet 3 to respond to the following questions:
Activity 3 follow-up questions for discussion:
Compare the main points of the closing arguments in the cases. Write a paragraph about the arguments. Is one more persuasive than the other? Why? Are the points based on evidence presented in the trials? What concerns or questions are you left with after the summations? What moral and ethical issues does each case raise for you? Does Atticus Finch’s courageous defense of Tom Robinson in the To Kill a Mockingbird trial seem realistic or overly idealistic? Is Atticus’s defense more or less courageous than Leibowitz’s defense? Cite evidence from both trials in your response.
A closing discussion of this lesson in its entirety will have students consider the following:
Have students write an essay relating values exhibited in both the fictional and historical trials, including moral courage. Students will use effective writing techniques and well-chosen details drawn from evidence gathered from the novel and primary source and secondary documents accessed in the lesson activities.
Compare the societal values that are manifested in the Scottsboro Boys and the To Kill a Mockingbird trials. What do the public testimony and private thoughts expressed by participants during each trial convey about the culture of the American South of the 1930s. Explain. Are there any differences in the ways the two trials depict the culture? What evidence of individual moral courage surfaces in these trials? Explain how and why such moral courage surfaces in spite of the social context of each trial. Are there similarities or differences in how such moral courage is displayed in each trial? Use observations about the characters, characters’ quotations, testimony, courtroom speeches, and primary and secondary sources to support your analysis.
Optional creative writing assessments:
Compare To Kill a Mockingbird, feature film (1962) and Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, documentary (2000).
Watch the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) by Robert Mulligan. This Academy Award-winning film, based on the novel by Harper Lee, both shaped and was shaped by society.
The film maintains great relevance today. A poll by the American Film Institute asked Americans for their top fifty heroes in American film and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch won. In 1995, the National Film Registry earmarked To Kill a Mockingbird for preservation in the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film.
Note: The EDSITEment-reviewed website, The Story in Movies, from 2013 Jefferson lecturer Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, contains a series of curriculum activities with information on the context and the content of the film To Kill a Mockingbird. This may be a valuable resource in unpacking the film for discussion.
Conduct a discussion of the film using the following questions.
3 class periods