by Sarah E. Jones
In Dayton, Tenn., William Jennings Bryan stands alone.
Or rather, a version of him does. Since 2005, the Rhea County Courthouse has displayed a solitary Bryan statue honoring his role in the famous “Scopes monkey trial” of 1925. Now, thanks to an idea hatched by an Americans United activist and endorsed by AU and a number of other groups, he may be about to get a new neighbor with a familiar face.
The organizations are partnering with renowned sculptor Zenos Frudakis to build support and raise funds for a companion statue of Clarence Darrow at the courthouse. The statue is intended to honor Darrow’s role as the freethinking antagonist to Bryan’s defense of creationism.
Officials in Rhea County are willing to accept a Darrow statue. It’s just a matter of getting him there.
Bill Dusenberry, an Americans United activist in Oklahoma, said he got the idea for a Darrow statue in 2009 when he visited Dayton and was surprised to see an edifice to Bryan but not Darrow.
“It was obvious to me when I saw that he was not represented, that I needed to do my best to do something about it,” Dusenberry told the Tulsa World earlier this year.
Dusenberry’s activism eventually led him to Frudakis, a Philadelphia-area sculptor and Darrow fan. Frudakis, who has made likenesses of Martin Luther King Jr., Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Franklin and others, told Church & State that he has long admired Darrow – he once even had a role in a production of “Inherit the Wind,” a play loosely based on the events of the Scopes trial.
“He’s someone I always wanted to sculpt,” Frudakis said. “It’s a great opportunity to be part of history. I wanted to depict the historical drama and create a companion piece to complete history.”
Displaying Bryan without Darrow, the sculptor argued, creates “an ideological, polemic piece” instead.
Representatives from Bryan College, a local conservative Christian school named for the trial’s victor, have reportedly expressed concern that their namesake will be overshadowed by the new addition. But according to Frudakis, Darrow will be the same size as his old foe.
It’s a bit of diplomacy the trial lacked.
Darrow and Bryan possessed well-earned national reputations for impassioned oratory. Their careers reflected the era’s populist fervor.
Bryan, once familiar to most American schoolchildren for his fiery “Cross of Gold” speech, represented the state of Nebraska in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1890-1894 and ran three times for the presidency.
A lawyer, Bryan was also a devout Presbyterian who was long troubled by the question of evolution.
According to Bryan biographer Louis W. Koenig, Bryan first encountered Darwin’s theories as a student at Illinois College; they instigated a major crisis of faith for the young man.
“That the scientific doctrine deeply troubled him seems quite clear,” Koenig wrote in his 1971 book Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan.
“Bryan was particularly vexed by the several theories of Creation and, above all, by the nebular hypothesis, which assumed that matter and force existed and that when the latter acted upon the former, the universe was created,” Koenig observed.
Bryan, he added, viewed that theory as a direct contradiction to the biblical literalism of his upbringing.
Bryan even wrote to the famed freethinker of the age, Robert Ingersoll, for advice, but he received a form letter in response. As history records, the budding politician, celebrated as the “Boy Orator of the Platte” for his rhetorical skills, eventually made peace with his faith and re-committed to a literal reading of the book of Genesis.
Darrow, meanwhile, had more in common with Ingersoll than with Bryan.
Eventually known as “the attorney for the damned,” Darrow built a legal career as a corporate attorney but later transitioned to defending people whom biographer John A. Farrell called “notable misfits.”
Darrow achieved national fame for representing Eugene V. Debs when the socialist faced charges for his participation in the Pullman strike of 1894; he later defended members of the United Mine Workers of America, the Western Federation of Miners and the American Federation of Labor. Darrow also saved the notorious 1920s “thrill killers” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from the electric chair.
Like Bryan, Darrow also had an interest in politics. He co-founded Illinois’ Populist Party and later ran for a U.S. Congress seat. Unlike Bryan, he lost. Also unlike Bryan, he identified as an agnostic.
It’s little wonder he wanted to represent John Scopes.
Scopes, a high school science teacher, had agreed to break Tennessee state law in 1925 by teaching evolution in his Dayton classes in exchange for legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The five-year-old organization had decided to challenge Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it a crime “to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”
On the other side of the aisle: Bryan. The devout attorney had agreed to defend the Butler Act against the ACLU’s legal onslaught. Observers called the resulting tumult the “Trial of the Century,” and a circus-like atmosphere at times pervaded the town. Local business leaders were happy to have national attention focused on their sleepy town, which at the time had a population of less than 2,000.
As the trial progressed, so too did the philosophical fault-lines between Darrow and Bryan.
“If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church,” Darrow argued on the trial’s second day. “Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other.”
Bryan, meanwhile, viewed the trial as nothing less than a fight for the survival of Christianity.
“They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it, and they can ask me any questions they please,” he asserted early in the trial. Later, Darrow directly challenged Bryan to take the stand in order to defend his interpretation of the Bible; against counsel, Bryan made good on his promise.
It didn’t go well for him.
“Now, you say, the big fish swallowed Jonah, and he there remained how long – three days – and then he spewed him upon the land. You believe that the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?” Darrow queried at one point.
“I am not prepared to say that; the Bible merely says it was done,” Bryan answered.
Judge John Raulston eventually ordered Darrow and Bryan to end the two hour-long stunt, but not before it permanently compromised Bryan’s legacy as the so-called “Great Commoner.” Agnostic journalist H.L. Mencken slammed Bryan as a “tinpot pope,” and playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee further cemented Bryan’s reputation as an ignorant blowhard in “Inherit the Wind.” (The famous play takes great liberties with the facts of the trial.)
Many people assume that Darrow won the case. In fact, he lost. Raulston ruled in favor of the Butler Act and fined Scopes $100. His conviction was later overturned on a technicality because the judge set the fine, not the jury. The Butler Act was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court and was not repealed until 1967.
Five days after the trial, Bryan died. (Darrow died in 1938.)
By the end of the trial, Darrow and Bryan had arguably come to symbolize a brewing national debate between modernists, who believed that faith could adapt to accommodate scientific discoveries, and fundamentalists, who believed that theories like evolution posed an existential threat to their religion.
That debate did not end with the trial. Fundamentalists kept pushing for the inclusion of creationism in science curricula, and modernists kept opposing their efforts. Even now, public school science classrooms are frontline trenches in the culture wars.
But Bryan and his ideological kin have suffered major legal losses since their long-ago victory in Dayton. A series of U.S. Supreme Court verdicts in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s reaffirmed the secular character of public schools – and the legal necessity of teaching the theory of evolution.
In 1968, the Supreme Court in Epperson v. Arkansas struck down an Arkansas statute identical to the law that sparked the Scopes Trial. And in 1982, a federal court struck down another Arkansas law requiring public schools to provide equal teaching time to creationism and evolution, on the basis that creationism is a religious doctrine rather than an evidence-based scientific theory (McLean v. Arkansas).
The Supreme Court weighed in again in 1987 when it invalidated a Louisiana law that mandated “balanced treatment” between teaching evolution and creationism in the case Edwards v. Aguillard.
But these verdicts didn’t deter creationists. Anti-evolution activists devised a new, ostensibly secular theory called “intelligent design” (ID) that purported to prove a supernatural origin for life without relying on the Bible. Some school districts began incorporating ID into curricula in a bid to circumvent restrictions on teaching creationism.
That changed in 2004. That year, Americans United, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the National Center for Science Education, aided by the law firm Pepper Hamilton, sued the Dover, Pa., school district after officials ordered biology teachers to read students a disclaimer that critics said promoted ID.
The disclaimer asserted there were “gaps in the theory” of evolution and urged students to consider Intelligent Design as a viable alternative explanation of the origins of life. The school district also salted the school library with copies of Of Pandas And People, a tome authored by fellows of the Discovery Institute, a pro-ID organization.
In 2005, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones vindicated Darrow 67 years after his death. Jones ruled that the district had violated the First Amendment by forcing teachers to present a religious doctrine as possible scientific fact.
“We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom,” Jones wrote. Intelligent design was simply creationism by another name, he added, because it “violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation.”
“It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy,” Jones concluded.
That case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, definitively blocked the teaching of creationism or its sibling, ID. Bryan may have won a skirmish in Dayton, but he definitely lost the war.
To activists in the Religious Right, however, Jones’ verdict marked another milestone in America’s moral decline.
The Discovery Institute condemned the decision. Its vice president, John G. West, accused Jones of “incredibly sloppy” reasoning and of ignoring scientific evidence that favored ID.
Despite the legal loss, the organization still actively promotes the inclusion of ID in science classes. In 2008, the Institute waded into a fight over science education in Texas; the State Board of Education (SBOE) appointed two of its senior fellows, Dr. Stephen C. Meyer and Dr. Ralph Seeke, to a panel of experts charged with reviewing science textbooks for the state’s public schools. The SBOE was then (and still is) sympathetic to creationism.
Another Discovery Institute fellow, Ray Bohlin, testified to the SBOE in 2013 that a set of proposed science textbooks had overstated and mischaracterized evidence supporting the validity of the theory of evolution. And he’s not going away: Slate reported in May that he’s applied to review the state’s next set of science textbooks.
Though the battle over creationism rages on, the front lines now lie largely outside Dayton, and the town seems to have embraced the quietude. Frudakis told Church & State that most locals are amenable to the Darrow statue. He said there’s only been one exception so far: During a recent visit to the courthouse, a lawyer told him the Darrow statue “shouldn’t be there.”
In a statement to the Dayton Herald-News, Rhea County Historical Society President Tom Davis said he has no objection to the statue.
“Back in 2005, we knew that if the topic ever arose, we’d have to consider adding a Darrow monument as well or else risk be shown in a negative or biased light,” Davis said. “We don’t want to stir up controversy or continue the battle from the 1920s, but rather just recognize it as a major part of our history. I think it will be a unique feature for Dayton and a good idea to have both Darrow and Bryan represented.”
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, a group that has endorsed the project, echoed those sentiments in a statement to Church & State.
“Clarence Darrow’s contributions to science education and civil liberties have left a lasting legacy to the humanist movement and the American people,” he said. “By honoring him with a statue outside the Rhea County Courthouse next to the statue of William Jennings Bryan, we hope to show a more complete and balanced perspective on the trial that also respects Darrow’s memory.”
And perhaps that’s precisely how both men would have wanted it.
To learn more about the Darrow project, visit https://secure.americanhumanist.org/darrow.