Today in History: Scopes Monkey Trial

1925 in Dayton, Tenn.: Quiet red-haired and boyish biology teacher and part-time football coach John Scopes was found guilty for teaching evolution in his classroom, which at that time was in violation of Tennessee state law.

Trial of the century, is what it was called. Scopes agreed reluctantly to the ACLU’s insistence on going to trial. He was cajoled into being a guinea pig to challenge the Constitutionality of the law.

Scopes was represented by Clarence Darrow and the State of Tennessee and the fundamentalists were represented by super-duper lawyer William Jennings Bryan – three-time Democratic nominee for president and a paradoxical blend of progressive conservatism.

At stake was the legitimacy to teach the theories of Charles Darwin. Ironically, no one knows if Scopes actually taught his class the theory of evolution. After all these years, Scopes isn’t some noble crusader but more of a reluctant participant.

One of the enduring debates concerning the Scopes trial revolves around whether Scopes ever actually taught the subject of evolution. George Rappalyea posed the question, holding up a copy of George W. Hunter?s Civic Biology, at Robinson?s drugstore. ?You have been teaching ?em this book?? he asked. Scopes answered, ?Yes,? then went on to explain that, while substituting for the regular biology teacher in April 1925, he had assigned his students Hunter?s chapter on evolution. Illness the next day, however, kept him home and, to his recollection, no class discussion of the evolution materials ever took place. Scopes, however, remembered teaching the topic in a general way earlier in the same month to his general science students.

Still, the trial went forward over eight sweltering days. National newspapers swarmed the small town (can honestly say I’ve been to Dayton and it’s charming and remote and they have a small plaque dedicated to the event) dubbing the trial “The Monkey Trial.” No reporting was more important than that of Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken, who with cynicism provided accounts back north. It’s almost difficult reading his reports that that was journalism at one point. Far different from the septic and innocuous even-handed reporting that is in vogue today.

Scopes was found guilty by a jury of his peers and ordered to pay a $100 fine.

His team appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court and though his conviction stood, his fine was overturned.

Bryan, meanwhile, died only five days after the conclusion of the Monkey Trial.

The Butler Act, as the anti-evolution law was known, remained on the books in Tennessee until its repeal by the state legislature in 1967.

It’s hard to say what the aftermath of this event had. Obviously, it paved the way for real science education in America, but the anti-evolution laws stayed on the books for nearly forty years and to this day science is still under the gun from fundamentalists seeking to teach God (and not just god but a distinctly Christian one at that) in the science classroom. It’s a thin line and it can disappear easily if people aren’t willing to stand up to those corruptible forces.

Source: University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School & Wired

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