What impact did the real-life trials have on Harper Lee?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird is in part social history of a Southern town in the 1930s which operates under Jim Crow Laws. Illustrative of this period is the unjust verdict against the innocent Tom Robinson, a African-American man caught between his human kindness and the social code that prohibits him from coming near a white woman.

Harper Lee bases this trial of Robinson upon the real-life incident of Emmet Till in which mob rule destroyed an individual, and the trial of the 1933 Scottsboro Boys in which two white women wrongfully accused nine African-American young males of rape. The women should have had no credibility as they were reputed prostitutes and rode trains like hobos. While they finally admitted that no one had touched them--like Mayella Ewell--it was too late for most of the men. In rushed trials with all white juries, all but 13 year-old Roy Wright were convicted and sentenced from 75 years to death and were sent to Kilby prison in Alabama. One of them as an inmate was shot by a guard. perhaps in an attempt to escape as does Tom Robinson.

Certainly, there are several parallels between the real historical incidences and the center of the novel, the trial of Tom Robinson. More than any other episode, this trial impresses upon the reader the theme of Racial Injustice, the killing of the innocent and the Mockingbird theme, and the theme of Hypocrisy in a community that would perceive itself as Christian. 

After the trial, Dill, who cries, Jem and Scout, as a young Harper Lee, are deeply affected. Certainly, Jem suffers from disillusionment and is angered at the men who could reach the verdict against Robinson of guilty. At home, he, too, cries. "It ain't right, Atticus," he tells his father. "No, son. It's not right."

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