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.
Walter Lippmann, in his illuminating study of the 1920s, traced this anxiety to a broader cultural shift. Observing a radical change in educational philosophy, Lippmann surmised that the purpose of formal schooling no longer dictated that “the child shall acquire the wisdom of the elders, but that he shall revise and surpass it.” Thus, the study of evolution exposed a fear among many fundamentalists, particularly rural southerners, of being left behind and perhaps even rejected by the new modern era exploding all around them. In an effort to respond to the growing sense of inferiority, fundamentalist leaders attempted to alter the perception of the anti-evolutionists. Using the same criticism of close-mindedness and ignorance often heaped on their followers, anti-evolutionists fired back at the scientists and liberal intellectual elite with mirrored accusations. Lowell Harris Coate, in his essay “Evolution Disproved,” zealously argued against the infallibility of evolution, insisting that the claims of biologists were based on radical theory rather than on scientific evidence: “It is interesting, indeed, at times even ludicrous, to read in the newspapers and the magazines about the numerous and various conventions and conferences, threatenings and thunderings, discoursings and discussings of one kind or other of a group of men, desiring to be known as scientists, who are just now particularly enraged over the fact that everybody in America is not falling over himself to accept, at full face value, their foolishness about evolution, without their presenting one single fact which can be accepted as proof for their much advertised ‘scientific conclusions.’” Moreover, anti-evolution proponents argued that their freedom of religion was being violated by the lack of choices they faced regarding the teaching of this “new” science in public schools. They positioned their community as the inquisitive side of this conflict, insisting they had a right to question Darwin’s theories, which they considered to be merely working hypotheses. Still other fundamentalist preachers further polarized the modernists and the biblical literalists by raising the stakes of the argument at hand. In his influential book, Hell and the High Schools, T. T. Martin (a fixture at the Scopes Trial) vowed that “if Evolution, which is being taught in our High Schools, is true, the Saviour was not Deity, but only the bastard, illegitimate son of a fallen woman, and the world is left without a real Saviour, a real Redeemer, and only hell is left for responsible human beings.” Without the victory of Bryan’s crusade against evolution, Christianity would die, and the southern fundamentalists, many of whom were new converts, in Dayton, Tennessee, would stand once again on the wrong side of history.
Many white southerners were particularly concerned with the way history would present their side of the sectional conflict and how it would judge their advocates, such as Bryan. Thus controlling, in some way, what children were taught in schools actually carried a significant sub-agenda. In the decades after the Civil War, white southern veterans groups were adamant that the “true and reliable history” of the Confederacy be an essential element in any school adoption. In Tennessee, the State Teachers’ Association actually promoted the use of southern literature that was sympathetic to the Confederacy in the classroom at their 1902 convention. The issue resurfaced at the Scopes Trial when Bryan attempted to conflate the sectional crisis of the nineteenth century with the evolution controversy of the current moment. Bryan promoted the idea that education already was local, and that communities should have jurisdiction over the content of public schooling: “No teacher would be permitted to go from the South and teach in a Northern school that the Northern statesmen and soldiers of the Civil War were traitors; neither would a Northern teacher be permitted to go from the North and teach in a Southern school that the Southern soldiers and statesmen are traitors.” Once again, Bryan pointed to the potential hypocrisy of northerners who, he suggested, would fight equally hard to ensure that their own values and story were handed down to their children. The push for local sovereignty or home rule of public education was welcomed by southern white fundamentalists and would continue to characterize much of the campaign against the teaching of evolution and would resurface during the later school integration crisis that followed at midcentury.
Despite the efforts of Bryan and his fellow leaders, evolution continued to be accepted and taught in the public school system. Most southern states attempted at some point to limit this modern encroachment, and the successful passage of the Butler Act garnered national attention. On March 24, 1925, the New York Times reported on the new Tennessee law on its front page. As has been well recorded by historians, the ACLU quickly offered to finance and provide representation for any teacher who would challenge the statute. Spearheading the plan to have the trial take place in Dayton, local businessman George Rappelyea hoped for publicity and an economic boom for the fledging community and encouraged John Scopes to take the bait. Rappelyea’s relationship with his new hometown (he had moved to Dayton in 1922) exposes, yet again, the local, sectional distrust of northern outsiders. Rappelyea—described as a “sharp-nosed, untidy, intense, argumentative, garrulous man” with “horn-rimmed glasses”—grew up in New York City, starting his career by selling newspapers at subway entrances in Manhattan. His hodgepodge education included some study of geology and civil engineering, leading to an unsatisfying job in the waterway system of New York. A vagabond of sorts, he soon headed south, eventually finding work surveying Tennessee farmland, where he suffered a snakebite that left him unconscious in the hospital. His nurse, Ova Corvin, became his wife, and she encouraged him to take a job in Dayton managing the renamed Cumberland Coal and Iron Company where her brother ran a general store. Despite his best efforts, Rappelyea was considered an outsider in Dayton, “a fringer, hovering on the edge of the drug-store crowd,” with “wild ideas.” He was ostracized because of his northern upbringing, his education, his wealth, and, eventually, his opposition to the Butler Act. When Rappelyea expressed his opinion, the owner of the main barbershop “became enraged and shouted, ‘You can’t call my family monkeys.’” He then proceeded to bite Rappelyea. Some insisted that this northern dissenter had “seduced Scopes into sin,” but others were excited by the potential publicity, even hatching a plan to kidnap Rappelyea to generate media buzz. No such stunts, however, were necessary to turn the spotlight their way.
Just as the sectional conflict dominated both the rhetorical campaign tactics of the anti-evolutionists and the vision of the Rhea County people promoted by the media, so too was the old battle between the North and the South resurrected in the Dayton courtroom that summer. The regional divide, which had been the center of southern white identity, now encompassed not only the nineteenth-century war over slavery, but also the twentieth-century war between religion and science, agriculture and industry, and conservatism and modernism. When Bryan, the champion of the southern side of these related conflicts, arrived in Dayton, he received a hero’s welcome. On his first night in town, he addressed the Dayton Progressive Club, insisting that “the contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death.” The next night, Bryan headed to Morgan Springs, a resort in Walden Ridge about six miles from town, where a crowd of country faithful had gathered on the veranda. There in the twilight, as “a fading summer storm touched the distant hills with flickers of lightning, and a rumble of thunder rolled across the valley,” Bryan conveyed confident pride in the South. His sentiment echoed the words he had once written to Tennessee governor Austin Peay after the passage of the Butler Bill: “The South is now leading the Nation in defense of Bible Christianity. Other states North and South will follow the example.”
From The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness, by Angie Maxwell. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.
- Israel, Before Scopes, 145–46.↩
- Bailey, “Enactment of Tennessee’s Anti-Evolution Law,” 477.↩
- Coletta, Political Puritan, 200.↩
- Lippmann, American Inquisitors, 84.↩
- Coate, “Evolution Disproved,” 90.↩
- Martin, Hell and the High Schools, 8.↩
- Israel, Before Scopes, 160–61.↩
- Rosser, Crusading Commoner, 310.↩
- De Camp, Great Monkey Trial, 4.↩
- Ibid., 5.↩
- Ginger, Six Days or Forever, 68–69.↩
- Ibid., 69.↩
- William Jennings Bryan, quoted in Koenig, Bryan, 639.↩
- Levine, Defender of the Faith, 327.↩