Copyright ©2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

Eighty years ago in July 1925, the mixture of religion, science and the public school caught fire in a Tennessee town. Dayton, Tennessee, was home to the Scopes trial, the Monkey Trial as it was called in headlines across the country; arguing against human evolution, William Jennings Bryan, and against the Bible story of creation, Clarence Darrow. The trial ended after just a week, but questions about teaching evolution are as divisive now as they were back then. In this half-hour of the program, a look back at the Scopes trial and at a community that's struggling with many of the same issues today. NPR's Noah Adams visited Dayton, Tennessee, and we begin with his report.

NOAH ADAMS reporting:

If you drive into Dayton and go to the Courthouse Square, the first person you might talk with is O.W. Wooden(ph). The tailgate of his truck is open, and he's selling pickled okra and jams and jellies. He has a farm in the hills outside of town. Mr. Wooden, when he was young, got to travel a bit in the service.

Mr. O.W. WOODEN (Resident): I was in Panama, see, and this Panamanian lived there, you know, and he asked me what part of the States I was from. And I told him I was from Tennessee, Dayton, Tennessee. `Oh,' he said, `that's Monkey Town,' he said. Yeah. And I reckon that's known all over the world everywhere I've been.

ADAMS: And the second question then, everywhere he's been, is: `Well, what do you think about the theory of evolution?'

Mr. WOODEN: They's trying to, you know, tell you that people come from monkeys, you know, and all that stuff, and it couldn't be right. Monkeys, to me, is like a chicken, and you know what a man is. It's just one of them things, and people's people.

ADAMS: The quiet, leafy downtown streets of Dayton on a hot summer morning. You can imagine the Model T Fords, women in long white dresses, men in suits and straw hats and what the old brick buildings used to be. We're here with Ed Larson. He's a law professor at the University of Georgia, and the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book called "Summer for the Gods." He revisited Dayton to show us around.

Professor ED LARSON (University of Georgia): This is not an old town. It was built in the late 1880s, 1890s when they put the rail lines through. And they grew strawberries here because it was a good area for strawberries. And then they put in them in the refrigerated rail cars, and they'd hall them up north.

ADAMS: There was some industry and coal from the mines nearby, but Dayton was missing out on the prosperity of the roaring '20s. The civic leaders wanted excitement, tourism, new business. The idea to hold an evolution trial in Dayton? It was just marketing.

Ms. ELOISE REED (Dayton Resident): All they wanted, those men, when it was mentioned to them that we might get a little publicity--Chattanooga, you know, papers would give us. Knoxville would, said maybe even Nashville and Memphis. My Lord, we went all over the world.

ADAMS: This is Eloise Reed. She's now 92 years old, so she was a 12-year-old girl that July in Dayton. Tennessee had a new law, first in the nation: You couldn't teach the theory of human evolution in the public schools. For the American Civil Liberties Union, newly formed in New York, it was an issue of free speech, academic freedom. The ACLU promised legal help anywhere in Tennessee if a schoolteacher would step forward and test the law.

A Dayton businessman saw the item in the newspaper, and around a drugstore table, over sodas, he and his friends wondered: `Why couldn't we have the trial in our courtroom? And why not ask John Scopes?' Scopes was the young football coach, a bachelor. He didn't teach biology, but he'd filled in for a couple of days, and the textbook, the state-required textbook, featured human evolution. When Scopes agreed to be arrested, the stage was set.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

Prof. LARSON: The actual train station would've been right over there.

ADAMS: The biggest deal ever at the Dayton depot? It was that July when William Jennings Bryan came to town. Bryan was 65, three times a Democratic nominee for president--never winning--a famous orator, a defender of the church, a leading fundamentalist--and that word was newly coined. He was traveling widely, warning against what he called `the menace of Darwinism.'

Prof. LARSON: Bryan came up on the Royal Palm Limited, one of the great trains of American history. The Royal Palm Limited usually just sailed right through. And it stopped here, there was a band, the entire town was out, there were banners. And William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner, walked off wearing a pith helmet.

ADAMS: And facing Bryan, defending Scopes, would be Clarence Darrow, 68 years old. He arrived by automobile and was welcomed more quietly, but he was just as well known. Both lawyers would serve without compensation. And as Ed Larson explains, they had reasons to meet in a courtroom.

Prof. LARSON: At the time, Darrow was more than simply America's most famous criminal defense lawyer; he was also a very popular public speaker. And his favorite topic was anti-clericalism. One of his biographers once called him the last of the village atheists on a national scale.

(Soundbite of bell ringing; traffic)

ADAMS: The county courthouse is red brick, white-trim windows, three stories high, as handsome now as it appears in pictures from the summer of the Scopes trial. The tourists did not show up for the event, but local people did. And The New York Times said, `They came from mountain farms near Dayton; gaunt, tanned, toil-worn men and women and shy children.' The Times story speaks of evangelists and blind minstrels and food for sale and calico and notions.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Then Dayton came a man with his new ideas so grand, and he said we came from monkeys long ago.

ADAMS: The saga of the Scopes trial was told in scores of songs, stories in 2,000 newspapers, movie newsreels. WGN Radio brought microphones from Chicago, the first time a trial was broadcast.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: Clarence Darrow had out-of-town experts ready to define Darwin's theory, but the judge agreed with the prosecution none of that mattered. The legal question was narrow: Did John Scopes teach human evolution? Darrow, perhaps overheated, certainly frustrated, decided to call Bryan to the stand. He would be questioned on the Bible. Against all advice from his colleagues, Bryan dared to accept. This happened on the seventh day, and the judge had moved the proceedings outside where it would be cooler and more people could hear the expected closing arguments that day. Even as a 12-year-old, Eloise Reed knew she was seeing something special.

Ms. REED: Well, we heard that day that they were going to be coming down there to that platform, we got over there early and got us a front seat under a big shade tree.

Prof. LARSON: Those three trees near the edge were there. This area was wide open for putting up a podium. Now people, of course, could see it from across the roads and the shops, Bryan up there sitting on the stand and Darrow looking down at him and asking him a question and pointing at him. And it's estimated there were about 2,000 people. They thought they'd come to see the closing arguments, but what they got was Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan. Probably the most famous scene in American legal history, and it didn't take place in a courtroom.

ADAMS: Watching from the first row, Eloise Reed became concerned about Mr. Bryan.

Ms. REED: It was a hot day. The temperature was over a hundred. And he was perspiring, and he had his handkerchief out and he would fan. But it got ugly.

ADAMS: By `ugly,' Mrs. Reed means Darrow was insistent, wanting Bryan to admit the Bible was open to interpretation. Bryan said at one point, `I believe in creation, and if I am not able to explain it, I will accept it.' Two famous old men arguing the law and the Bible. There was anger and wit, laughter and logic and, sometimes on Bryan's part, confusion.

Prof. LARSON: His own supporters, they thought he'd had a bad day, that he didn't come off very good that day. But then they would explain, `But look, he was being interrogated by Clarence Darrow. I mean, the devil himself is not as good. And who could stand up?' You read this in a lot of accounts. Given who was questioning him, they said Bryan did a pretty good job.

ADAMS: The next day, the trial was over. John Scopes was convicted; the judge fined him $100. And five days later, William Jennings Bryan died, died in Dayton after church, after Sunday dinner, while taking a nap.

(Soundbite of play)

Mr. TONY McHOUSTON(ph): (As Charles Darrow) Now did he show you a book, which has been entitled "A Civic Biology," which I hold in my hand?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, sir.

ADAMS: Every July, the townspeople of Dayton put on a play about the Scopes trial. The script is taken straight from the court record. Their rehearsal space and their stage is the old courtroom. Air conditioning is now a blessing.

(Soundbite of play; gavel)

Unidentified Man #3: We will adjourn till 9 AM tomorrow morning.

Mr. McHOUSTON: OK, we'll do the same scenes again Thursday.

ADAMS: Tony McHouston, who is a furniture designer at the La-Z-Boy plant, plays the attorney Darrow. McHouston is also the director, casting his neighbors: a professor, a family doctor, the owner of a bed and breakfast.

Mr. McHOUSTON: The toughest thing with this one is getting men. Men are difficult to get into a fine arts situation in a small country town. But...

ADAMS: The men of Dayton who volunteer for the cast look forward to each summer's performance. They see it as a chance to tell the story right.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: In the 1950s, there was a long-running Broadway play that seemingly was based on the trial of John Scopes. It was called "Inherit the Wind." It made Dayton look bad and William Jennings Bryan appear foolish. And besides that, the playwright said, it was really about the threat of McCarthyism.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: In 1960, "Inherit the Wind" became a movie, a starring role for Spencer Tracy. The premiere was in Dayton at the drive-in outside of town. And afterwards at a reception, Eloise Reed told the director, Stanley Kramer, she thought the movie was terrible, and so did her friends.

Ms. REED: It belittled our town. They showed all of the ugliness that they could get into it to make it look like a little bitty borough or something, you know. It was the way they portrayed us because we didn't believe in the theory, or maybe not that, but we didn't want it taught. We didn't care. We didn't give a hoot whether they taught it in the school or not. That's all right. They couldn't make the people 'round here believe it.

ADAMS: Our guide to Dayton, the historian Ed Larson, says perhaps no one was converted by the Scopes trial, but because Bryan and Darrow were such great speakers, both sides were energized.

Prof. LARSON: Their words, from this very place where we're standing out here on this--under these trees, were so powerful that they continue to resonate today. This issue is as live today in many parts of America as it was back then. And it's part because they gave it voice by their words.

ADAMS: Moments of history are often created from great purpose and from happenstance. This one occurred 80 years ago this month in the small town of Dayton in east Tennessee. Noah Adams, NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.