What does Tom Robinson say in To Kill a Mockingbird that might make him lose the trial?

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mrwickline | High School Teacher | In Training Educator

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In Chapter 19, Tom Robinson gives his testimony during his trial in which he stands accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Atticus questions Tom Robinson first regarding the events that happened on November 21st. Tom Robinson denies allegations of rape, and his story drastically contrasts with Mayella’s. Mr. Gilmer questions Tom Robinson as to why he volunteered to help Mayella with various chores. Tom Robinson repeatedly tells Mr. Gilmer that he felt that Mayella needed help and it seemed like nobody ever helped her out. Mr. Gilmer calls Tom a mighty generous man because he helped Mayella out frequently without asking for monetary compensation. Tom responds by saying,

"Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em—" (19.264)

Scout says that nobody in the courtroom was pleased with Tom’s answer. He made the mistake of saying he felt bad for a white person. During that time period in Maycomb, Alabama, African Americans were considered the lowest members of society. For a black man to feel sorry for a white person was unheard of. Even though the Ewells were considered dirty and trashy, they were still superior to any African Americans. What Tom Robinson said was considered an insult to white people. The fact that an inferior black individual would take pity on a white person was considered an offense.

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