Jerry Summers: Chattanooga Or Dayton? – Scopes Trial

  • Friday, June 21, 2024
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

After the enactment of the Tennessee Anti-evolution Act on March 21, 1925, banning the teaching in public schools of the theory that “man has developed from some preexisting lower species”, (rather than the biblical account and Genesis) the question arises to whether anyone would question the constitutionality of the law?

As previously reported (chattanoogan.com- August 2023) a group of Dayton citizens decided to bring a test case and biology instructor and athletic coach, John Scopes, was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for teaching out of a biology textbook that mentioned Charles Darwin's evolution theory.

Scopes was arrested and a preliminary hearing was held on May 9, 1925 in a lower court and his case was transferred to circuit court and passed to the next term of court in August.

Allegedly a group of Chattanooga businessmen started a campaign to possibly file a separate legal challenge in Hamilton County.

The 1968 Master's thesis of Bobby E. Hicks at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) is a biography on one of the principal characters (and lawyers) in the Scopes case titled “The Great Objector: the Public Career of Dr. John R. Neal” contains a few pages that address the efforts of some to move the case to the new Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga erected in 1922.

The selling point to the proposal was that it was air conditioned and could seat several thousand spectators (the hot weather in July 1925 would become a factor.)

Conflicts and fiery words took place between neighbors and citizens of the adjoining counties on the location of the proposed trial:

1) Speeches and rumors denouncing the efforts of Chattanooga and the Chattanooga Times newspaper to steal the case from Dayton, for the anticipated publicity were made;

2) A resolution was passed by the Rhea County government declaring any attempt by another city to hold an evolution trial to be an unfriendly act;

3) Assistant prosecutor and future judge Sue K. Hicks stated that “the trial should be in Dayton for its citizens knew as much about evolution as the citizens of Chattanooga”;

4) Another local citizen stated that Chattanooga had raised $50,000 to be used for advertising for the trial;

5) Threats were made that consumers and shoppers would take their trade to Knoxville;

6) Another highlight of the dispute was the reporting of a pre arranged first fight between George Rappleyea (one of the original creators of the idea for a test case trial) and a local barber over a statement that Rappleyea had made that “there were as many evolutionists in Dayton as monkeys in Chattanooga”;

7) In another Master Thesis “Background of the Scopes Trial in Dayton” (1959, University of Tennessee) by Warren Allen, an announcement was made that “the world's largest chimpanzee might be brought to aid in the defense” (of the evolution statute).

Tensions rose to the point that the attorney John R Neal attempted to file a petition for an injunction on July 3, 1925, before federal Judge Xenophon Hicks of the United States District Court for Middle and East Tennessee to stop the prosecution against Scopes in state court. Defense counsel and others had decided that the best chance to win the Scopes case was to get it away from state court and the rural Rhea County and to have the Butler Act declared unconstitutional.

By coincidence (or judicial design) Judge Hicks became unavailable by leaving the State of Tennessee.

Neal then presented his petition to Judge John J. Gore of the Middle District of Tennessee (a relative of future Senator Albert Gore Sr. and Vice President Al Gore Jr.) who on July 8, 1925, rejected the petition “claiming that it was out of his jurisdiction.”

(Thus the “Tennessee trial of the century” was ready to start on July 10, 1925.)

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If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact him at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

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