Educational Home Page about the Scopes Trial
Not Just Another Monkey Tale
It's a beautiful sunny day. Stephanie and I are driving across Tennessee, listening to John Cougar Mellencamp on the radio. We pass by red farmhouses, wide-open fields, antique stores, and a church on what seems to be every corner. We are on our way to Dayton to investigate the famous Scopes Trial of 1925. As we drive onward, it is not difficult to imagine this place as it must have been more than 75 years ago.
It's 1925. Jazz music is jamming, the new
intellects are expounding Freud and contemplating abstract art. All that
is new is cool, and all that is old, is not. But in the south, as the
roaring '20s erupted, Christian Fundamentalists were working hard to
combat the wild times
set in motion by these new social patterns. Could all these churches be leftover remnants of a time gone by?
the mid-'20s, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, and other states had
passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the classroom. In
Tennessee, the Butler Law was passed with the support of
Governor Austin Peay. Although he was not a Christian
Fundamentalist, many of his constituents were and he
wanted to keep them happy. He never believed the law would be an active
statute and I bet he didn't imagine that an entire nation would soon be
listening in on one of the most publicized trials of the century,
the Scopes Trial
The facts of the trial appear straightforward. A
law was passed that prohibited the teachings of evolution as fact in the
schools. A young teacher was carried away in handcuffs
and thrown into jail for breaking the law (at
least, that is how Stephanie remembers learning it when she was in
school). A trial ensued between the Evolutionists and the
. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But the deeper we delved into the facts, the clearer it became that the Scopes Trial was so much more complicated.
the passing of the Butler Law, the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU) in New York City put out an announcement that it would support any teacher willing to challenge the statute. And here is where the facts get interesting. George Rappelyea, one of Dayton's town leaders and the owner of a mining company, got hold of the announcement and decided this would be a great way to get Dayton on the map. According to our interview with Tom Davis, the Director of Public Information at Bryan College in Dayton, Rappelyea was not so much interested in education as he was in getting publicity for Dayton, a small midwestern town. If he could find a teacher willing to test the law, the exposure from the trial would attract the attention he needed to get more funding for his suffering mining company.
John T. Scopes
, a football coach and substitute biology teacher. Scopes agreed to take part in the plan. Rappelyea and other town leaders met at the local drugstore, and so began the conspiracy to test the law. They chose the defending attorneys-they even chose the prosecuting attorneys! Then they put out a warrant for John T. Scopes for violating the Butler Law.
the prosecuting side was 75-year-old William Jennings
Bryan. He was politically very active, working for the good of
the common man. He even ran for president on three occasions. He was also
a Christian Fundamentalist and traveled the country giving speeches such
as, "Is the Bible True?"
A great orator who spoke about the literal interpretation of the Bible, he was the perfect character to prosecute the case.
the defending side was 70-year-old Clarence Darrow. He
had worked in the labor movement, and was known as the "champion
of the underdog
." Although he was supportive of Bryan's political agenda and had even defended him at one time, Darrow was strongly against Bryan's crusade to wipe out the teaching of Darwinism. Being an agnostic (one who doesn't isn't sure if God exists or not), he was the perfect opponent to Bryan's prosecution.
the trial approached, the city of Dayton took on a carnival
atmosphere. From the "holy roller" Fundamentalists to the
performing chimpanzees, everyone wanted to get into the act. There were
banners in the streets, lemonade stands on the sidewalks,
and the locals were renting out rooms for all the spectators who had come
to town. It was even the setting for the first live radio
broadcast of a trial.
Behind the circus atmosphere, there actually was a
trial going on. Darrow and the defense wanted to challenge the
constitutionality of the Butler Law. They wanted Scopes to be found
guilty so that they could appeal the case to the Supreme
Court. The judge, John T. Raulston, kept a firm hand over the proceedings, making sure the trial was not about the constitutionality of the law, but about the fact that Scopes had broken the law. He declared much of the defense's evidence and testimonies from the experts to be inadmissible because they supported evolution but did not prove Scopes' innocence.
As I am learning about this, I think: Great strategy! Bring this to the Supreme Court! Go Darrow! But as I start to learn about the way in which Darwinism was being taught at the time, and about Bryan's motivation for speaking out against it-well, that is another story altogether.
Around and Around We Go- Let's
see, two people with a poor sense of direction driving thousands of
The Darwinism of the '20s, as it appeared in
Hunter's 1914 Civic Biology, taught that there were five races of
"man". It then went on to explain that the lowest level "is of the negro type" and the highest level is the "Caucasians, represented by the civilized inhabitants of Europe and America." These ideas were presented in a popular textbook and taught as fact! Did teachers challenge any of these ideas, or was Darwinism being taught straight from the text without question? Yikes!
only did the Darwinian teachings of the time have a strong current of
racism running through them, but Bryan also looked at
them from a political standpoint. Survival of the fittest is a phrase
associated with Darwin's Theory of Evolution and was
being expanded to describe the social climate as well. The bulk of the
money fell into the hands of the few, making it easiest for them to
survive. Families like the Carnegies and the
held great wealth, while the common man was facing an economic depression. Bryan, an advocate for the common man, did not want to let wealth become an indicator of survival.
the issues brought to light are still debated today, the trial itself
ended rather uneventfully. Darrow brought Bryan to the stand as a
bible expert. He then went on to make Bryan look foolish
for his literal interpretation of the bible. While the testimony was
stricken from evidence, it did stand out to many as an example against
teaching creationism. Darrow, who had hoped the case would reach the
United States Supreme Court, asked the jury to find Scopes guilty. They
did. Scopes was fined and the trial ended. A year later, the case did
reach the Tennessee Supreme Court, but not in the way that Darrow had
hoped. The case was repealed
on a technicality and the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed it altogether.
The Scopes trial may not have accomplished what Darrow had intended. It certainly did not end the debate over the teaching of evolution. But it did-and still does-have a continuing legacy in the laws surrounding the teaching of Darwin's theories in the classroom. In 1925, only two of the fifteen states considering anti-evolution legislation actually did so. In 1987, the case of Edwards vs. Aguillard used the Scopes case to help strike down a Louisiana law mandating that creationism be given equal time with evolutionism in the classroom. Yet in 1999, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the list of subjects tested on their state standardized tests. While this move did not explicitly ban the teaching of evolution, it certainly de-emphasized its importance in the state's curriculum. The Scopes debate lives on.
Stephanie and I drove away from Bryan College (named for the famous
prosecuting attorney at the Scopes trial), we wondered about the
townspeople living in Dayton at the time of the trial. Mostly churchgoing,
blue-collar workers, did they support Bryan and the anti-evolution
statute? And if so, whose right was it to determine the laws-the
intellectuals or the public at larege? Today, private universities such as
Bryan College can teach creationism. As Mr. Davis said during our
interview, "Most people on the science faculty [at Bryan College] say that
if you take the creationist view, you understand that God started the
process. If you take an evolutionist view, it just happened. Ultimately
you have to make a choice." Whether or not I agree with
that sentiment, I am glad to be living in a time and place where I
to make such a choice.
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Links to Other Dispatches
Neda - Building a better human - in the 1920's?!
Stephanie - The KKK: breaking the cycle of hate
Jennifer - The talking walls of Angel Island
Irene - Making a run for the border
MAD - TV: A giant slushie for your brain