By the 1920s, the sectional reconciliation that had seemed achievable after Reconstruction was foundering, and the South was increasingly perceived and portrayed as impoverished, uneducated, and backward. In The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness Angie Maxwell examines and connects three key twentieth-century moments in which the South was exposed to intense public criticism, identifying in white southerners’ responses a pattern of defensiveness that shaped the region’s political and cultural conservatism. Maxwell exposes the way the perception of regional inferiority confronted all types of southerners, focusing on the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and the birth of the anti-evolution movement; the publication of I’ll Take My Stand and the turn to New Criticism by the Southern Agrarians; and Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance and Interposition in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Tracing the effects of media scrutiny and the ridicule that characterized national discourse in each of these cases, Maxwell reveals the reactionary responses that linked modern southern whiteness with anti-elitism, states’ rights, fundamentalism, and majoritarianism
In the following excerpt (pp. 54–58), Maxwell discusses the origin of the Scopes Trial in the Butler Act, which prevented the teaching of evolution in public schools.
The War between the States . . . Again
In the years preceding the Scopes Trial, the anti-evolution message was proclaimed incessantly throughout Tennessee, which appeared prominently on the speaking schedule for Dr. William Bell Riley, president of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, in 1923. Summoned by several prominent Tennessee attorneys, William Jennings Bryan also delivered a historic address in Nashville, “Is the Bible True?” The sermon proved so stirring that it inspired the sponsors to disseminate thousands of printed copies throughout the state; an additional 500 pamphlets were provided to members of the Tennessee statehouse upon its 1925 opening session. The result was the Butler Bill, House Bill 185, sponsored by John Washington Butler and introduced on January 21, 1925. Initially, the bill was recommended for rejection by the house committee to which it was assigned. But local evangelical ministers held powerful sway in the state of Tennessee. Despite vocal opposition, from university academics to editorials in the Nashville Banner, warning about the threat the bill posed to free speech, one particular line of argument proved effective. Rev. A. B. Barrett of the Fayetteville Church of Christ “charged that many college students were returning home atheists and agnostics because of the teachings of Darwinism.” The Tennessee preacher, whether knowingly or not, touched on one of the greatest anxieties of God-fearing parents of the 1920s.
The very foundations of the anti-evolutionist argument had long been focused on the fear that children would lose their religious faith if they were exposed to Darwin’s theories, and the movement proudly proclaimed that its primary intention was to save American youth from self-destruction. Many of Bryan’s early speeches heralding the literalist interpretation of the Bible and denouncing Darwinism were offered as reactions to books such as The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological and Anthropological and Statistical Study by James Henry Leuba, published in 1916. Leuba’s research concluded that during their experience with higher education, particularly throughout the four years of college, many students lost interest in their religious faith. The Butler Act was, in fact, sponsored by a father whose children began questioning the church of their upbringing after their high school science classes presented the theory of evolution. Anti-evolutionists played on this fear of southern Christian parents—the fear that examining the origins of man would lead to a more far-reaching rejection of the Bible and a subsequent embrace of modernity. And, of course, embracing modernity could affect not only one’s religious commitment but also the racial contract upon which the Jim Crow system relied.
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