Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird reflects several major events in African American history. The ordeal of Tom Robinson relates to the regularity with which Black men were falsely accused of raping white women. In Scottsboro, Alabama, during 1931, nine Black teens were accused by two white women of raping them on a train. Eight of the nine young Black men were found guilty and sentenced to death. The verdicts rested on the testimony of the two white women. There was significant evidence that they weren’t telling the truth.
Before their death sentences, the nine Black teens, like Tom Robinson, faced threats to their lives. A mob of white men tried to lynch them before the official verdict.
Tom Robinson’s case also relates to the murder of Emmett Till. During 1955 in Mississippi, Till was murdered by white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman and grabbing her. The main witness, another white woman, would eventually take back her testimony. Like Robinson, Till died due to false, racist accusations.
Martin Luther King Jr. himself has a clear relationship to Lee’s novel. In his book Why We Can’t Wait, King cites Atticus Finch as an example of the effectiveness of nonviolence. The scene in which Finch confronts the mob that wants to lynch Robinson reflects, in King’s words, that “nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice.”