“To Kill A Mockingbird” and the Scottsboro Boys Trial: Profiles in Courage

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.

Guiding Questions

How does awareness of a historical event such as the Scottsboro Boys Trial vivify Tom Robinson’s story in To Kill A Mockingbird?

Learning Objectives

To expose the students to the history and cultural milieu of the deep South in 1935 America

To demonstrate close textual reading

To gain an awareness of how one’s society might force its citizens to take unpopular, but moral, stances in order to promote change.