originally published August 12, 2013
A few words about the great state of Tennessee before I begin. It’s a lovely state, full of history, and it features Nashville, one of the bedrock states of American music. I feel I need to preface with this, as Tennessee has taken a few hits in the media lately. This is the state where, in 2011, legislators passed a bill that would make it illegal for educators to even make reference to the fact that some people in the world are gay. As geographically removed from the deep south as Tennessee may be, their leaders have fought hard to appear as intolerant and backwards as possible.
And this is hardly a new development. One of the first ‘trials of the century’ took place in a Tennessee courtroom, and while it had nothing to do with homosexual rights, it focused the blinding media spotlight onto the state’s educational system, and revealed it to be ludicrously outmoded.
They called it the Scopes Monkey Trial. But in reality, it wasn’t the monkeys who needed defending. It was science.
It all started when a downhome folksy Tennessee farmer-turned-lawmaker named John W. Butler introduced a bill that would make it illegal for any teacher in any school in the state to teach evolution. Evolution was a bitch-slap in the face to the science of the Bible. Teachers were not – under the threat of a hefty fine – allowed to deny the origins of mankind as taught in holy scripture.
To be clear, you could teach that apes evolved from protozoa, that natural selection is a thing, or even that evolution occurs all over the animal kingdom. But John W. Butler was incensed that children were coming home and telling their parents that the Bible was hooey. Evolution was fine if a lizard wanted to start walking upright and call itself Godzilla, or if a skunk wanted to paint a white stripe on itself and become a cat, but leave the sacred tenets of humanity out of it.
When governor Austin Peay signed the bill into law, he did so to court rural voters. He never thought anyone would actually enforce the thing. Former US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan wrote the governor a hearty letter of thanks after the bill was passed, praising him for saving Tennessee children “from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.” Somewhere the God of Irony smacked his forehead in disbelief.
The American Civil Liberties Union was not a fan of the new law. It was too late to organize a grassroots pro-science fight against its existence, so the only option left was to challenge it in court. And in order to do that, they’d need a sacrificial lamb, a teacher who was willing to throw themselves onto the pyre of justice, to be gobbled up by the flames of inequity and potentially emerge with a career that is singed and ashy and ultimately unsalvageable.
John Scopes raised his hand and stepped up.
Actually, Scopes later confessed that he hadn’t actually taught evolution in the classroom – he had missed that particular day. But the ACLU was putting up the bankroll, and if the possible end result of the trial might be a striking down of this ridiculous law, then Scopes was willing to fudge the truth a little. Besides, the textbook for the curriculum, Civic Biology, featured a chapter on evolution. To properly teach the class, a teacher would have to break the law.
Scopes urged his students to testify against him, whether or not they remember ever learning anything about evolution in his class. He was formally charged on April 24, 1925, and arrested – though not actually detained. The owner of the Baltimore Sun put up the bail money, and the trial was underway.
William Jennings Bryan was part of the prosecuting team, along with future US Senator Tom Stewart. The ACLU team allegedly contacted author H.G. Wells to be a part of the defense team, but Wells declined, citing the fact that he was not technically anything remotely close to being a lawyer. They did snag super-attorney Clarence Darrow though.
The ACLU had hoped to challenge the law on the basis of how it violated teacher’s rights. Darrow instead went with the gambit of claiming that evolution does not inherently contradict biblical teachings. Eight experts on evolution were brought in to testify – the judge allowed only one to speak. Judge John T. Raulston, who kicked off the trial with a lengthy quote from Genesis and the Butler Act, didn’t care much for Darrow or the defense team, so things appeared doomed from the start.
By the time the trial wrapped up, Darrow had abandoned his and the ACLU’s strategies, and was attacking the literal interpretation of the Bible. The judge declared that all defense testimony about the Bible was irrelevant, and it was tossed before the jury got to hear it. On the seventh day of the trial, Darrow called William Jennings Bryan, part of the prosecution team, onto the stand as a Bible expert. This is where things got weird.
Darrow dug into the biblical guts, questioning the scientific logic of Eve being created from Adam’s rib, or where the hell Cain found a wife. Darrow asserted it was an insult to every man of science to use a religious text in order to provide a scientific education. When an objection was raised as to the purpose of Darrow’s line of questioning, Darrow responded, “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.”
Judge Raulston shut down the escalating discussion between the religious Bryan and the agnostic Darrow, striking it all from the record. John Scopes was found guilty of having violated the Butler Act, and was fined $100.
During the appeals process, the ACLU opened with their original plan, by attacking the law’s violation of the rights of teachers. It didn’t work – Scopes was still guilty.
The ACLU gave up on challenging the Butler Act by 1932. Scopes took a scholarship to further his education in Chicago, and left the Tennessee education system for good. Triumphant fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan passed away just five days after the end of the case, no doubt getting a heaping dollop of congrats from God himself for having beaten those pesky science-lovers. Within two years, 13 states had considered some form of anti-evolution law, with Mississippi and Arkansas both slapping one on the record.
This issue divided the nation, with newspapers in the northeastern urban centers mocking the backwoods dogmatic rejection of science in Tennessee, while southern rural papers praised Bryan and the prosecution team for a job well done. The story was adapted into Inherit The Wind, a 1955 play that was made into a 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March.
As for the Butler Act itself? It did end up getting repealed. Science did eventually win this battle.
In 1967. Forty-two years later. Well done, Tennessee.