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Nashville Scene Disinherit the Wind

Behind the high drama of the "Monkey Trial"

JULY 13, 1998:  The courtroom on the second floor of the Rhea County Courthouse feels like a stage set, even though it's still used daily. The rows of attached wooden folding chairs with iron frames, the creaky wood floors, the high judge's bench flanked by Tennessee and United States flags, the lawyers' burnished tables and the upright jurors' chairs--none of these has changed since 1925.

"This is where it all happened," says a swarthy sheriff's deputy, gesturing grandly at the vast room with its arched windows. That table there--that's where William Jennings Bryan sat with the prosecution team. The one opposite--that was for Clarence Darrow and his client, John T. Scopes. And the witness stand adjacent to the bench--that's where the portly Bryan sat while Darrow dramatically grilled him on his belief in God and the Bible. The folding chairs were packed with spectators from around the country, including some 200 newspaper and radio reporters, all of them sweating in the July heat.

Downstairs in the basement, a small museum documents the Scopes trial with blown-up photographs, pamphlets, and posters from the month 73 years ago when this quiet Middle Tennessee town was the most exciting place in the world. Every summer, more than a thousand tourists come to see reenactments of the court battle. But if they come expecting to see something like Inherit the Wind, the fictionalized account of the trial that graduated from Broadway into several film and TV adaptations, they'll be surprised.

Because the Scopes trial had almost nothing to do with small-town intolerance, Bible Belt absolutists, or altruistic educators. And it had virtually no impact on the legal status of evolution vs. creation.

"For the creation/evolution debate, it wasn't very significant. It didn't settle much," says Edward Larson, a University of Georgia professor whose recent book about the trial, Summer of the Gods, just won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for history.

Among the little-known facts about the trial:

  • The town of Dayton lobbied to get it. When the Tennessee Legislature passed the Butler Act, which made the teaching of evolution illegal, the ACLU took out ads in Tennessee newspapers seeking a teacher to challenge it. Dayton civic leaders saw it as a great way to draw attention to the town, which then had fewer than 3,000 residents. (It has slightly more than 7,000 now.) After the local high school principal, who also taught biology, declined to be the guinea pig, the town fathers appealed to Scopes, a young teacher who had been hired the year before primarily as a football and baseball coach. He agreed. Other cities in Tennessee--including Knoxville and Chattanooga--were also racing to get the trial, but Dayton was the first to file charges.

  • Scopes never actually taught evolution in a classroom. A handful of students were coached by him and Darrow before the trial so they could testify that they had learned Darwinism from him. Scopes was not arrested at school and never went to jail.

  • The ACLU didn't want Darrow on the case. The organization worried that the grandstanding lawyer, renowned for the Leopold-Loeb trial among others, would turn it into a circus. But Scopes' chief attorney, John R. Neal (a former UT law professor), brought him in anyway.

  • The ACLU didn't care about winning the case at the local level; the goal was to get the Butler Act ruled unconstitutional by a higher court. Darrow actually asked Judge John T. Raulston to instruct the jury to find Scopes guilty, which it did after nine minutes of deliberation. He was fined $100.

  • The Scopes case didn't overturn the Butler Act. Although the Tennessee Supreme Court threw out Scopes' conviction on a technicality--because the judge rather than the jury set the fine--it upheld the anti-evolution law itself, while also making it clear that the justices didn't want to hear about it again. There was never another prosecution under the law, and the Butler Act was finally repealed in 1967.

Given all of that, why does the case still generate so much interest? Larson thinks it's because the trial was really about something else--what freedom means in a democracy.

Darrow and Bryan were arguing the age-old question of whether the interests of the majority outweigh the rights of the minority. "Most people think Scopes won, and I think the reason they think that is the whole concept of freedom won," Larson says.

Of course, the trial had its negative ramifications as well. Although it succeeded in putting Dayton in the spotlight, it contributed to perceptions of Southerners as ignorant bigots. "It literally created stereotypes," Larson says. "It created alienation of fundamentalists. It drove them out of the mainstream and helped create them as a subculture within our culture."

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