On March 25, 1931, a freight train was stopped in Paint Rock, a small town in Alabama. Nine young African American men who had been riding the rails from Tennessee to Alabama were arrested. Two white women, one underage, accused the men of raping them while on the train.
Within a month, one man was found guilty and sentenced to death. A series of sensational trials, known as the Scottsboro trials, followed based on the testimony of the older woman, a known prostitute. The prostitute was attempting to avoid prosecution under the Mann Act, which prohibited taking a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, like prostitution.
Although none of the men were executed, a number of them remained on death row for many years. The last defendant was released in 1950.
There are several striking parallels between Tom Robinson’s trial in To Kill a Mockingbird and the Scottsboro trials:
Time and Place
- The Scottsboro trials took place in 1930s northern Alabama.
- Robinson's trial took place in 1930s southern Alabama.
Accusers and Defendants
- The Scottsboro trials began with a charge of rape made by white women against African American men.
- Robinson's trial begins with a charge of rape made by a white woman against an African American man.
- Attitudes about Southern women and poor whites complicated both trials, making the accusers' statuses as poor white women a critical issue.
- The first juries in the Scottsboro trials failed to include any African Americans, a situation that caused the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the guilty verdict.
- The jury in Robinson's trial comprises poor white residents of Old Sarum.
- A jury in the Scottsboro trials ignored evidence; for example, that the women suffered no injuries.
- The jury in Robinson's trial ignores evidence; for example, that Tom has a useless left arm.
- Judge James E. Horton, a member of the Alabama Bar, overturned a guilty jury verdict in one of the Scottsboro trials, thus going against public sentiment in trying to protect the rights of the African American defendants.
- In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, lawyer, legislator and member of the Alabama Bar, defends Tom Robinson, an African American man. In doing so he arouses anger in the community.