Scottsboro Boys and “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Two Trials for the Classroom

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.

Guiding Questions

How does the trial experience in a fictional narrative, To Kill a Mockingbird compare to the historical Scottsboro Boys trials that inspired it?

Learning Objectives

Compare trial accounts in literary and informational texts, including trial observations, major characters, and closing arguments in each case

Examine character traits of fictional and historical figures in the two trials to see how they exhibit cultural values especially courage and/or cowardice

Explore the history and cultural milieu of the American South in the 1930s

Recognize changes in American cultural attitudes from the time of the Scottsboro trials and the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird to the present day