In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is accused of rape. What is rape?
Before the twentieth century in the United States when the definition was broadened, rape was defined as the crime of sexually violating a woman forcibly.
This charge of rape made by Mayella Ewell against the quiet and kind Tom Robinson is the cruelest thing she could have done to him. For within the 1930s setting of Harper Lee's narrative, Jim Crow laws were in effect. One of the perspectives of these laws was the imperative of keeping blacks separated from whites. Restaurants, bathrooms, schools, churches, etc. were all segregated.
Also, there was a fear among the upper classes of whites that blacks might "infiltrate" white society if they were able to marry or have children with white women. Therefore, "miscegenation" was unlawful. And, to enforce this law, lynchings took place whenever any familiarity between a black man and a white woman was just suspected, let alone a fact. For example, in 1931, there was a trial of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women. All but the youngest boy were convicted even though there was medical evidence that no rapes occurred. Before "the Scottsboro Boys" (the crime was supposedly committed in Scottsboro, Alabama) were even indicted, a lynch mob came for them. The arrest and trial of Tom Robinson are influenced by this equally tragic history of innocent black men.
In the context of this novel, rape is when a man forces himself on a woman sexually. In other words, Tom Robinson is accused of having sex with Mayelle Ewell against her will. It is clear that the two did kiss, but there was no actual sexual contact. Kissing is not considered rape, and Mayella initiated the kiss. In the South at this time there was no crime more terrible than a black man raping a white woman. Innocent men were often accused of rape, because they were black. Sometimes this was just because they were there, and sometimes it was because they were in a relationship with a white woman, which society would view as wrong.