In To Kill a Mockingbird, why was Tom’s statement a “mistake” and why did the spectators dislike it?
He said he felt sorry for Mayella Ewell, and realized he was unwise to say so. Scout also comments that none of the spectators like Tom's answer.
This is a most interesting statement in light of the times nowadays. In essence, for that time and that society, Tom Robinson's statement that he felt sorry for Mayella was what is today called "politically incorrect." Ironically, it is in reverse to what usually occurs in present-day America.
Of course, Tom's intentions are none other but to be truthful; the idea of his making any claim to be better than Mayella is fallacious and completely out of character. (Notice, also, that he has not said that he pities Mayella; he has stated that he felt sorry--these words differ greatly in connotation and denotation.)
Certainly, Tom's candidness connotes his complete lack of "situation ethics" that are also employed in modern society. These false ethics Tom does not understand as he is completely ingenuous. The only ones like Tom Robinson are the children, who in their innocence, also do not realize that one cannot always say what comes from the heart. The scene in which Tom Robinson gives his testimony, indeed, reinforces the symbolism of his being a mockingbird as the jury commits the sin of effecting his death when they condemn him for his "thinking he is better than a white."
In my opinion, it is a mistake for any black man to say that sort of thing about a white woman in the South at that time in our history.
Black people were supposed to keep to their own place in society. They were supposed to know that they were inferior to white people. When you feel sorry for them, you are, in some way showing that you feel like you are at least equal to them.
For a black man to claim to be equal to a white woman at that place and time was a mistake.
In that culture, it was inappropriate for a lesser individual to feel sorry for a higher class citizen. (I know, it's hard to think of Mayella as higher class in this situation)
The spectators thought this demonstrated he thought of himself as better than her by this comment. We as readers know he did likely have a stronger moral character than her, but that's not her fault. In times like those, whites were just superior to colored folks. It's not right, but it was the truth. The white people couldn't believe he had the audacity to report a story different than hers either.
This is what makes the story so powerful today. We watch through the narration of a child how ridiculous and detrimental prejudice was.