The Scottsboro Boys: An American Tragedy
No crime in American history– let alone a crime that never occurred– produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on a Southern Railroad freight run on March 25, 1931. Over the course of the two decades that followed, the struggle for justice of the “Scottsboro Boys,” as the black teens were called, made celebrities out of anonymities, launched and ended careers, wasted lives, produced heroes, opened southern juries to blacks, exacerbated sectional strife, and divided America’s political left.
Maycomb, Alabama (1933)
Evidence of time and place come in the form of descriptions of the south during the Depression. The most obvious clue is the lines in which the narrator muses, “But it was a time of vague optimism for some folks: Maycomb had recently been told that they had nothing to fear but fear itself,” a clear reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address.
In the first chapters, Harper Lee masterfully paints the picture of a small town neighborhood and its peculiar inhabitants, especially the Radleys.
Scout (Jean Louise) Finch– tomboyish 6 year old narrator of the novel
Atticus Finch- Scout and Jem’s widowed father, who works as a lawyer in town
Jem (aka Jeremy Atticus) Finch- Scouts 10 year old brother
Calpurnia– the Finch family cook who serves as a maternal figure for Jem and Scout.
Dill Harris- Jem and Scout’s 7 year old summertime neighbor
Walter Cunningham– Scout’s older classmate who is poor but proud.
Burris Ewell– Scout’s truant classmate who is dirty and disgraceful.
Boo (aka Arthur) Radley- reclusive neighbor who Jem and Scout fear because, although they have never seen him, believe rumors that he is a monster who eats raw squirrels and any cats he could catch and peeps in people’s windows at night.
Nathan Radley – Boo’s older brother who is just as unfriendly as his father was.
Stephanie Crawford- the neighborhood gossip.
Maudie Atkinson– kind, sensible neighbor who Scout spends time with whose views echo Atticus’.
Mr. Avery- cranky neighbor who pees in the bushes.
Mrs. Dubose- super cranky, prejudiced old woman who taunts Jem enough to make him lose his temper. Atticus claims that she is the bravest woman he knows because she dies free of her morphine dependence.
Heck Tate– town sheriff who sensibly requests that Atticus shoot a rabid dog because the cop admits that he is not as skilled with a gun as Atticus is.
B. B. Underwood- editor of the Maycomb Tribune
Walter Cunningham Sr.- farmer who hired Atticus to help him arbitrate a legal case.
Plot: Chapter Summaries
Chapter 1: New and Old Neighbors
Scout and Jem meet dill who is staying next door at his Aunt Rachel’s for the summer. Dill is 7 years old, from Meridian, Mississippi, and will be staying every summer throughout the duration of the novel which will encompass 3 summers. He is small for his age, but a vivid story teller and character actor, and he is fascinated with the Radley house. The Radleys are a sad family. No one ever comes out of the house or comes to visit. Boo Radley, the youngest soon of Mrs. and Mrs. Radley, has not been out of the house in almost 20 years. He had a brief bout with the law when he was a teen, but then became a hermit. Jem has wild ideas about his reclusive neighbor and they all stem from the gossip of Stephanie Crawford. Dill wants to see boo Radley so Jem, Scout and Dill hatch plans to make Boo Radley come out of the house, but first Dill dares Jem to just go up and touch the house. Bending to pressure of being called a coward, Jem reluctantly agrees. He succeeds by running as fast as he can, and a slight flicker of the blinds suggests that their reclusive neighbor may know what his young neighbors are up to.
Chapter 2: School Daze
Scout’s first morning of school is disappointing. Miss Caroline scolds Scout for being literate and whips her for correcting the young teacher’s misguided efforts to lend Walter Cunningham money for lunch. As Scout explains, Walter is poor but proud. He will go hungry before he will ask for a handout from anyone, just like his father. Once, Mr. Cunningham Sr. hired Atticus to do some legal work involving a defaulted bank loan. Despite Atticus’s offer not to charge his cash-strapped client for legal services, Mr. Cunningham pays the Finches with produce from the farm because that is all he has. Mr. Cunningham does not want charity or pity, and neither does his son.
Chapter 3: It’s Alive!
When the class breaks for lunch, Scout tackles Walter for getting her in trouble with Miss Caroline. Jem breaks up the fight and invites Walter home for lunch. Atticus and Walter talk knowledgeably about farming until Scout and Walter have another altercation because Walter pours syrup all over his food. Back at school, Miss Caroline is horrified when she discovers lice crawling from Burris Ewell’s hair. Scout notes that Burris is the filthiest human she has ever seen, not to mention the rudest. On his way out the door, he insults the teacher enough to make her cry. Burris will not return to school to make any more trouble because, as Atticus explains, the Ewells have been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations. None of them are educated and none has done an honest day’s work in anyone’s memory. In fact, Burris’ father, Bob Ewell, is particularly despicable because he is a drunk who neglects his children.
Focus on Style
An effective introduction will (1) engage the reader and pique interest, (2) state a thesis, (3) provide title and author if necessary, (4) transition to the body of the essay. An effective lead strategy could include:
- definition of a key term
- startling fact or statistic
- reference to an expert
- series of provocative questions
Mini lesson on the value of a solid introduction
An effective conclusion will make a connection between the thesis and real life. This episode of 60 Minutes, puts a contemporary face on poverty.
Chapter 4: Treats in the Tree
On her way home from school one day, Scout finds a piece of chewing gum in a knothole in the big oak tree on the corner of the corner of the Radley lot. When she tells Jem where she found the gum, he commands her to spit it out; nothing near the Radley place should be considered safe! On the last day of school, Jem and Scout discover a pair of valuable Indian-head pennies in the knothole. The children suppose the items belong to one of their classmates, but this is unlikely since no one passes the Radley house. Dill arrives for summer vacation, and the children are quickly bored with their usual games. Jem has the idea to play an elaborate drama of the Radley’s sordid history– stabbing and all. Atticus notices the game and orders them to stop. Scout is glad that Atticus halted their activities because she remembers hearing someone inside the house laughing when she rolled into the front yard in the tire.
Chapter 5: Miss Maudie
Jem and Dill begin to leave Scout out of their activities because she is a girl. As a result, Scout finds companionship with her kind and compassionate neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson. One evening, Scout asks Miss Maudie whether Boo Radley is still alive. Mill Maudie says he is and tries to explain why the Radleys are so peculiar. According to Miss Maudie, the Radleys are “foot-washing Baptists” which is a religious sect that believes that anything that is pleasure is a sin. Miss Maudie does not provide Scout with many details about the Radley history except to say that no one knows what goes on in people’s lives. Unlike Miss Stephanie, who preys on people’s misfortunes and gossips constantly, Miss Maudie respects the Radley’s privacy and sympathizes with Boo’s predilection for solitude.
Chapter 6: A Room with a View
One evening, Jem and Dill concoct a scheme to get a look at Boo Radley. They are going to sneak under the fence, through the collard patch, and onto the Radley’s front porch to look through the window. Their mission goes awry, though, when Nathan Radley shoots at them. The children race home, but Jem looses his pants when they get caught on the fence on the way out. The children innocently join the commotion caused by the gunfire when Miss Stephanie notices that Jem is missing his pants. Dill quickly invents a story that we won them playing strip poker and Atticus orders Jem to get his pants back. In the middle of the night, Jem does just that. Despite the danger of being shot at, he returns to the Radley yard to retrieve his pants.
Chapter 7: No-So-Secret Admirer
Days after that terrifying night of skulking around the Radley property, Jem finally reveals to Scout that when he went back for his pants he found them mended and folded over the fence. Jem is confused by this gesture because it seems like whoever sewed the pants knew that he would come back for them. The children continue to receive presents in the tree: two soap dolls that are exact replicas of themselves, more chewing gum, a spelling medal, a broken watch and chain Jem decides to write a thank you note that he beings with “Dear Mr…” because he suspects that the gifts are from Boo Radley, a connection that eludes Scout. When they go to put the note in the tree, they discover that the knot-hole has been sealed up. Mr. Nathan says that he put the cement in the tree because the tree was dying but Atticus can see no evidence of the tree’s mortality. Jem sits alone all evening after that conversation, and when he comes in Scout notices that he’d been crying.
Chapter 8: Fire and Ice
Maycomb experiences an unusually cold winter and one February day it snows. The children build a snowman in the likeness of their cranky neighbor, Mr. Avery, who blames the children for the bad weather. That night, Miss Maudie’s house burns down and the whole neighborhood turns out to help douse the flames. Jem and Scout are ordered to stand by the Radley house and stay out of trouble, but they freeze out in the bitter cold. The commotion eventually settles down and everyone returns home. Atticus notices that Scout is wearing an unfamiliar blanket around her shoulders and the family realizes that the reclusive Boo Radley had come out of the house to protect Scout from the cold. Miss Maudie moves in with Miss Stephanie while a new home is built.
Describe how the children’s perceptions of Boo Radley have changed since the beginning of the novel, and explain why their new perception is more truthful.
BEFORE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE:
“Boo was about six feet tall…” (16)
“As Mr. Radley passed by, Boo drove the scissors into his parent’s leg…” (13)
“The misery of that house began many ears before Jem and I were born” (11)
“There are just some kind of men who are so busy worrying about the next world that they’ve never learned to live in this one” (60).
Jem’s imagination fill in the details.
Miss Stephanie keeps this sordid story current and the Radleys offer no counter narrative to the stabbing incident.
Miss Maudie explains that the Radley family is so different from the rest of the neighbors because their strict religious beliefs make them intolerable of other people’s actions.
AFTER PERSONAL EXPERIENCE:
KING AND CARING NEIGHBOR
“Our biggest prize appeared four days later. It was a pocket watch that wouldn’t run, on a chain with an aluminum knife” (81).
“When I went back they were folded across the fence… like they were expecting me,” (78).
“You were so busy looking at the fire you didnt’ know it when he put the blanket around you,” (96).
Boo Radley gives the children presents that he knows they will enjoy.
Boo Radley protects Scout from the cold.
For more insightful explanations, watch this video about the danger of a single story and explain how the children had only a single story of Boo Radley.
Chapter 9: Defending Atticus
Scout gets into a scuffle with one of her classmates, Cecil Jacobs, because Cecil taunts Scout about Atticus defending a black man. Atticus tells Scout that she is too old for fist fights and orders her to get bothered by anything she hears about him. She respects his wishes until she visits her Aunt Alexandra for Christmas. Francis Hancock, Alexandra’s grandson, tells Scout that Atticus is ruining the family Atticus is a black man and Scout wallops him. Uncle Jack spanks Scout for her impertinence and the party breaks up. Once at home, Uncle Jack and Scout talk about the incident and Uncle Jack learns what Francis said. Respecting Scout’s wishes, he does not tell anyone but he and Atticus talk about the Tom Robinson case. Atticus tells Jack that Judge Taylor appointed him as legal council and that the verdict is certainly guilty. No white jury could be expected to take a black man’s word over a white woman’s, even if the accuser is one of the Ewells. Atticus hopes to jar the jury and have a chance of acquittal on appeal. Knowing that Scout is eavesdropping, he says that his only hope is that his children will get through the ordeal without bitterness and will come to him for answers instead of the town.
Chapter 10: Ol’ One Shot
The children get air rifles for Christmas. They are allowed to shoot tin cans and birds, but not mockingbirds because songbirds don’t doanything but sing their hearts out for people. One day in February, they are looking for some game to shoot at when Jem notices the town hound, Tim Johnson walking like he is sick. He tells Calpurnia who confirms that the dog is inflicted with rabies. She warns all the neighbors and alerts Atticus who comes to the rescue with Heck Tate, the town sheriff. Noticing the precarious position of the dog and the necessity for infallibility, Heck Tate hands the rifle over to Atticus. As his children watch, Atticus shoots the dog in one swift motion displaying superior skill in marksmanship, and Atticus returns to work without a word about the incident except to warn the children to stay away from the dead canine. Miss Maudie explains that Atticus is not proud of his talent. Only conceited people brag about their gifts, but Atticus refrains from shooting because his skill gives him an unfair advantage over other living things, and he refuses to exercise that power. This attitude makes Jem proud.
Chapter 11: Misery Loves Company
Jem and Scout begin to hang out in town. Getting there takes the children past the home of Mrs. Dubose, a cranky and argumentative old woman who sits on the porch and yells insults at the children as they walk by. One day, Mrs. Dubose calls Atticus the same thing that Francis Hancock and Cecil Jacobs did and Jem’s temper boils over. On the way home, he takes the baton he bought for Scout and smashes all of Mrs. Dubose’s camellias. As punishment, Atticus makes Jem read to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon. Accompanied by Scout, Jem complies and they settle into a routine filled with horror and disgust. Mrs. Dubose lays in bed insulting, slobbering, and drifting into a haze before the two are excused. After weeks at her bedside, the children are released from their obligation. Not long afterward, Mrs. Dubose dies and she leaves Jem a box of camellias with a note of gratitude. Atticus discloses that Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict because she had been sick for years. She wanted to die free from her addiction, so Jem provided distraction during withdrawal. Atticus tells Jem that Mrs. Dubose is the bravest woman he ever met because she knew she would lose her battle with pain, but she fought anyway. Atticus may be displaying some insight into his own character as he prepares to defend Tom Robinson in a trial for his life.
Chapter 12: First Purchase
It’s the beginning of summer and Scout is lonely. Jem is preoccupied with things more interesting to adults, Dill is still in Meridian because he and his new father are building a boat, and Atticus is off in Montgomery doing work for the state legislature. Scout spends most days with Calpurnia who realizes one Saturday night that Atticus left no instructions about whether or not the children should attend church the next day. She decides to take them to her church. Except for one contentious parishioner, the Finch children are warmly welcomed. Reverend Sykes tells them that the black community has no better friend than their father. At church, the children learn that Tom Robinson, the man that Atticus is defending, is accused of raping Bob Ewell’s daughter and that no one in town will hire his wife Helen because of her husband’s alleged crime. The black community is raising money to help her with her three children in Tom’s absence. Jem and Scout also learn that very few people at First Purchase can read–Calpurnia and her son Zeebo are in that minority– and that Calpurnia has spent her whole life working for the Finches and she is older than Atticus. When the children arrive home, Aunt Alexandra is sitting on the porch with enough luggage to suggest that she is staying a while.
Chapter 13: The Fault in Our Stars
Aunt Alexandra is the epitome of southern womanhood and an avid proponent on the caste system that exists in southern states. According to Aunt Alexandra, the Finches are at the top of the cultural ladder because of generations of gentle breeding and diligent social training. She feels it is her responsibility to instill Finch family values in Jem and, especially, Scout. Atticus agrees to let Alexandra provide his children guidance, but stops short at adjusting his own tolerant attitudes in order to be the kind of role model that his sister wishes he would be.
Chapter 14: Rape, Riot, and Runaways
When Scout asks her father what rape is, Atticus finds out about Jem and Scout’s excursion to Calpurnia’s church. Alexandra pushes Atticus to fire Calpurnia claiming that she is not needed anymore, but Atticus refuses citing her lifetime of loyal service. Jem and Scout get into an argument because Jem tells Scout to stop antagonizing Aunt Alexandra and Scout feels that he is getting too bossy. When the children go to bed, they discover Dill hiding out under the bed, having run away from home because his mom and new dad ignore him. Dill and Scout discuss their different views on the value of a parent’s attention, but both agree that being needed is essential to feeling loved.
Chapter 15: Southern Lynch Justice
The night before the trial, Heck Tate and several men from town show up at Atticus’ door and tell him that trouble is stirring. Some men from Old Sarum are talking about lynching Tom Robinson who has just recently been to the county jail. Armed with a newspaper and a reading lamp, Atticus goes out for the night. Jem and Scout witness the strange scene and decide to go see what Atticus is up to. They find him reading the paper under the light from a bulb hanging from the second story jail cell where Tom waits to face a rape charge. The children witness several cars pull off the Meridian Highway, stop in front of the jail, and order Atticus to step aside from the door but Atticus refuses. Suddenly concerned for her father in these strange circumstances, Scout runs to Atticus with Jem and Dill on her heels. Atticus tries to his children to go home while Jem stubbornly refuses, when Scout recognizes Walter Cunningham’s father and begins a friendly conversation. Mr. Cunningham is suddenly ashamed of his actions and he directs the mob to disperse. Both Atticus and Tom are relieved that the situation did not escalate to violence, but Maycomb Tribune editor B.B. Underwood assures them that he had the situation covered with his two-barrel shotgun.
Chapter 16: Tom’s Day in Court
The morning of the trial, everyone in town– except Miss Maudie who has no business with the court and thinks it morbid to watch Tom fighting for his life– parades down Main Street en route to the courthouse to watch the trial. Jem points out some of the more interesting characters, one of whom is Dolphus Raymond whose life story is as interesting as Boo Radley’s. According to neighborhood legend, Dolphus Raymond’s fiance shot herself in the head the morning of their wedding and he’s been a drunk ever since. Although no one knows for sure why the young bride committed suicide, rumor has it that she found out that Raymond had a black mistress and he was not intending to end the relationship even after he got married. Jem explains to Scout that Dolphus Raymond has several biracial children that he takes good care of. Because he owns plenty of property and comes from a fine family, the townspeople excuse Raymond’s transgressions blaming alcohol and depression for his otherwise intolerable behavior. Although Atticus told Jem to stay away from the courthouse, the children go to court anyway. They arrive late and all seats in the segregated white section of the courtroom are taken so Reverend Sykes ushers the children to the balcony, the section designated for black people.
Chapter 17: Maycomb’s Infamous Southpaw
Heck Tate is the first witness for the prosecution. His testimony is unremarkable except when he offers to describe the bruises on Mayella’s countenance. He tells the court that Mayella was badly beaten on the right side of her face and had finger marks all around her throat. She claimed that Tom Robinson beat and raped her, but no doctor was called to administer to her wounds. Bob Ewell confirms all that Heck Tate says, but one seemingly innocent question generates great interest. On cross-examination, Atticus asks Ewell if he can read and write and asks him to demonstrate his skill by signing his name. Everyone in courts gasps as Ewelll does so with his left hand. The inference that Bob Ewell could have beaten his own daughter is lost on the witness, but not on everyone else. Although it is unlikely that Tom would also be left-handed, it is not impossible.
Chapter 18: Mayella Says
Mayella falls apart of cross examination. At first Atticus asks questions aimed at painting a picture of Mayella’s lonely life and admitting that her father beats her when he is drunk. Her testimony is guarded because she fears being made to look like a fool like her father was, although she is not quite sure what the significance is of Mr. Ewell being left-handed. She soon finds out. When Atticus asks her to identify the man who raped her, she discovers that Tom Robinson has a lame left arm. It is clear to that Tom Robinson could not have caused her injuries, and her father is most likely the one who beat her. In a fit of rage, Mayella accuses the jury of being “yellow stinking cowards” if they do not convict Tom and then bursts into tears and refuses to talk any more.
Chapter 19: Tom Says
From Tom’s testimony, jurors learn that he is married with three children, had been arrested for assault because he once got into a fight with another man, and had been on the Ewell property many times because Mayella would ask Tom to do
chores for him when he passed by on his way home. Tom would help Mayella because it does not seem that anyone else does. After the first time he refused her offer of a nickel in exchange for his services, he is never compensated for his work. On the day of the alleged rape, Mayella asked Tom to help her fix a broken door in the house but Tom could find nothing wrong with the door. Then she asked him to get something down from a cabinet. He did, and when he turned around Mayella hugged and kissed him. Tom is so startled that he accidentally turns over the chair that he was standing on. As Tom rebuffs Mayella’s pleas to return her affection, Mr. Ewell appears at the window and curses his daughter for kissing a black man. Tom just runs out of there as fast as he can, and Mr. Gilmer exploits Tom’s response by suggesting that only a guilty man would run. Tom holds up well under cross examination until he makes one colossal mistake; he admits to pitying Mayella. Mr. Gilmer takes full advantage of this slip– surely the jury will punish any black who has the temerity to feel sorry for a white person; that in itself is a crime. Dill becomes so upset at Mr. Gilmer’s condescending tone and the way he twists Tom’s story that he and Scout have to leave the courtroom.