Jerry Summers: Judge Sue K. Hicks - “A Boy Named Sue”

Saturday, January 11, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Chattanooga’s neighbor to the north, Rhea County, has become famous (or infamous) in American legal circles as a result of the John T. Scopes trial in 1925 on the issue of the prohibition of the teaching of the theory of evolution of man from lower animals in schools and universities under the Tennessee statute (Butler Act) enacted by the Tennessee Legislature in March, 1925.

            
What started out to be a test case on evolution that began in a conversation over coffee at a local drug store (F.E. Robinson) was the intention of bringing favorable attention to the rural town of Dayton.

            
History has covered the important proceedings with mixed reviews as to whether Dayton’s image has been enhanced or diminished over the years since the trial. 

            
The Gem Players of Etowah annually put on a production of the movie “Inherit the Wind” which is a fictionalized account of the trial held in 1925.

It is held at the Gem Theater in Etowah, Tennessee. 

            
In the famous trial one of the originators of the idea to test the constitutionality of the Butler Act by teacher John Scopes was attorney Sue K. Hicks and his brother, attorney Herbert Hicks.  His role in the legal proceedings was greatly diminished when former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and renowned criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow were employed to represent the State and the defense respectively. 

            
The trial lasted 10 days and Dayton was depicted as a backward community by the news media and particularly by H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun newspaper.  A carnival atmosphere was created by both sides on the issue of evolution expressing their viewpoints with written signs, preacher’s sermons, and even the presence of a live ape. 

            
Most of the expert evidence on the issue of evolution that was attempted to be introduced by the defense was excluded by Circuit Judge John Raulston and that testimony was heard outside the presence of the jury for the purpose of making an appellate record to be reviewed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The state high court later upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act but dismissed the case on the technicality that the $100 fine imposed by Judge Raulston on John Scopes upon a finding of guilt by the jury after nine minutes was illegal because Tennessee law required that all fines levied against a defendant in excess of $50 had to be set by a jury. 

            
Although attorney Sue Kerr Hicks’ role in the Scopes Trial was relatively small he would obtain name recognition and notoriety in another area of his personal life.

            
When his mother died shortly after giving birth to her son, his father named him Sue in honor of his late wife.    

            
Shel Silverstein, noted cartoonist, author, poet, songwriter and playwright of children’s stories who was also probably better known as the featured cartoonist for Playboy Magazine from 1957-1970, also wrote a song that was recorded by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.”  He allegedly got the idea for the tune when he attended a judicial conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee where he heard Judge Hicks speak on a legal topic. 

            
Although the story in the song is not the reason for Sue Kerr Hicks inheriting that name it has historically been repeated that the young male lawyer with the unusual first name from Dayton, Tennessee was the model for the song.  The song won a Grammy Award in 1970.

            
Sue Hicks served as Circuit Judge in Tennessee between 1936 and 1958 and thereafter as a senior judge.

            
He was very proud of the fact that he had tried over 800 murder cases as a judge but lamented that “the most publicity has been from the name Sue and the evolution case.”

            
Johnny Cash first sang and recorded the song about Sue at a live concert at San Quentin Prison in California.  It later became a big hit for Cash and the singer sent Judge Hicks two records and photos inscribed with the inscriptions, “To Sue, how do you do?”

            
Sue Hicks died on June 17, 1980, at the age of 84 and is buried in Sweetwater, Tennessee. 


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Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com


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