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There is no question that Harper Lee based the Robinson trial upon the actual trial of nine young African-American men charged with rape in Scottsboro, Alabama. Like the Tom Robinson trial, the original arrests and charges were based solely upon the word of a white woman. This woman, who was a known prostitute, had been riding illegally on a train with another young woman; she made her charges of rape against the black men who were also riding on the train because she had been traveling with a minor and was trying to avoid prosecution under the Mann Act, an act prohibiting anyone from taking a minor across state lines with immoral purposes. While Mayella Ewell was no prostitute, she did try to deflect the blame for her actions onto an innocent African-American male.
This infamous first trial resulted in the conviction of all the defendants. However, it was taken to the Supreme Court of Alabama, but despite Chief Justice John C. Anderson's dissent, the ruling did not change. Appeals were made, but seven of the nine men went to prison. In another similarity to Tom Robinson, one of the inmates attempted escape and was shot by a guard, although he was not killed.
Both the Scottsboro trials and the Tom Robinson trial were set in 1930s Alabama, a highly segregated society. Both involved accusations of rape against African American men. In addition, both juries were entirely white, no surprise in the Jim Crow South, but it was a factor in the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the convictions in Powell v. Alabama (1934). Additionally, both cases involved a principled white man, Atticus in the book and Judge James Horton, an Alabamian, in the Scottsboro cases, that went against public opinion. Horton overturned one of the jury's verdicts in the 1933 trials.
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