No Monkeying Around

Little known fact: My husband’s great great grandfather was the judge in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

For those unfamiliar with this landmark case in American legal history, The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes was a test case. The test? To address the teaching of evolution in public schools.

On April 7, 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee, a young biology teacher named John Scopes taught a class using information from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. This heinous act violated Tennessee’s Butler Act, which the state legislature had passed to prohibit teachers from sharing with students that “man” had come into being through a long, step-by-step biological process, rather than created in a snap by a deity.

The American Civil Liberties Union championed Scopes and hired renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow on his behalf. The state invited William Jennings Bryant, a devout Presbyterian, peace advocate and prohibitionist who’d run for President three times (as a Democrat), as a guest prosecutor.

The judge, my husband’s ancestor, was John T. Raulston. Judge Raulston was a local man, deeply religious, who carried a Bible into court and  opened every court session with a prayer. According to press reports, he reveled in the attention of the trial, and liked to have his picture taken. He did make some attempts to keep the trial from turning into a raucous, rowdy circus. He failed.

The trial of John Scopes was a great big hullaballoo in the small town of Dayton. After 11 days, Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution. Judge Raulston’s sentence was a fine of $100.

The guilty verdict, however, was overturned by a higher court. Eventually, in 1962, the US Supreme Court struck down state laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution. The Butler Act had been repealed a year earlier by the Tennessee legislature.

The Scopes trial has been immortalized in a number of media forms, most famously in Inherit the Wind, a play eventually filmed several times as movies. Monkey Trial, part of PBS’ American Experience series, is an excellent production.

I am writing about the Scopes trial today not because I’m particularly proud of my husband’s ancestor’s small place in American history, but because it’s Banned Books Week. Naturally, I am thinking of censorship, and its various forms. Removing books from public libraries or striking them from school reading lists is one form. Another is to prohibit or prevent publication.

A third, more murky form of censorship, is when a book can’t get published because the subject matter is considered too risky or controversial in “this current climate.” Such is the case of an award-winning children’s book, according to author Daniel Loxton.

The title of the book? Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be.

Loxton’s book will not be found on the Banned Books list. Why? It was never published in America. No publisher would take the risk on a children’s book about evolution.

Most authors I know would consider it a badge of honor to write a book that’s been banned. It’s certainly good for sales and publicity. When I volunteered at a local high school, the school’s librarian did a display of contested books during Banned Books Week. Those titles flew off the table. This is what people who contest books don’t seem to understand (and let’s not tell them).  For a young person, banning a book makes it all the more desirable.

The Scopes trial was in 1925. That’s 86 years ago. And evolution is still considered a “risky” topic.

Not publishing a well-written, well-researched science book because its subject matter is too controversial in “this current climate” says to me, we need a climate change. Because this one is just embarrassing.

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