1925 July 10

Historic Scopes Monkey Trial Begins


The trial of John T. Scopes, charged with violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools, began on this day. The case created a national and international sensation, and the trial was covered by reporters from across the U.S. and other countries. It was also one of the first events to be broadcast nationwide on the still relatively new medium of radio, on Chicago radio station WGN. Scopes was convicted, but it was overturned because the judge made an error in setting the sentence. Embarrassed by the publicity surrounding the case, the State of Tennessee did not appeal the reversal or retry Scopes. As a result, there was no Supreme Court test of the issues raised by the case.

Four decades years later, in Epperson v. Arkansas, on November 12, 1968, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an Arkansas anti-evolution law similar to the 1925 Tennessee law.

Inherit the Wind is a play and a movie based on the famous Scopes trial (see April 21, 1955). While many parts of the plot are inventions and are overly melodramatic, much of the cross-examination of the Bryan character (played by Frederick March) by the Darrow character (played by Spencer Tracy is taken directly from the trial transcript and is riveting.

The Scopes case is one of the most famous trials in American history and a landmark in the history of civil liberties, raising fundamental issues about academic freedom and the separation of church and state. The battle over the teaching of evolution in the public schools continues to rage to this day, as conservatives have tried other methods of getting religion exercises and anti-evolution ideas into the public schools, including required moments of silence (June 4, 1985), the teaching of “scientific creationism” (June 19, 1987), and “intelligent design” (December 20, 2005).

Watch film footage of the trial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8vFYovIjZY

Visit the Rhea County Court House, now a National Historic Landmark:

Read: Edward J. Larson, Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (1997)

Learn more about science education and evolution: http://ncse.com/evolution

And more about the trial: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes.htm

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