On this bizarre and disturbing Fourth of July, I ran into a fascinating and inspiring history of the founding of the ACLU. Which, of course, has a lot to do with the First Amendment and how the ACLU has defended it and protected us from frequent assaults upon it.
Among the things I didn’t know about the ACLU was when it was founded, which was earlier than I had thought, in response to our entry into World War I. The early versions fervently supported pacifists, conscientious objectors.
And I didn’t know it had been co-founded by a woman, Crystal Eastman, a lawyer, suffragist and radical, and sister of Max Eastman.
My relationship, so to speak, with the ACLU began with the 1925 Scopes Trial, which the ACLU initiated by publicly offering legal defense for any science teacher in Tennessee who would challenge the Butler Act, the state law banning public schools from teaching evolution — or any theory that contradicted biblical “truths.”
In a more or less casual way that reads sort of like a cute meet in a rom-com, a small group of what passed for upper echelon businessmen of Dayton, Tennessee saw John Scopes walking by Doc’s drugstore one day and summoned him in, to ask if he’d taught evolution during the single school year he’d taught in Dayton.
He hadn’t himself — he’d been substituting as science teacher for a teacher who was on sick leave — but yes, evolution was in the science textbook and yes, he certainly supported the theory of evolution.
Hey, the group said, showing Scopes the ACLU ad in the Chattanooga Times (owned by the Ochs family who had bought the New York Times), would you like to be a defendant in this case?
After a while Scopes agreed.
The goal of the businessmen who’d come up with this idea had nothing to do with supporting science. They were interested in getting publicity for the commercial possibilities in Dayton. As far as I can make out, Dayton’s commerce consisted of (1) strawberries and (2) moonshine created up the cliff that is the Cumberland Plateau, which hovers over Dayton, lying as it does in the Tennessee River Valley.
The town’s wise men were thinking a little bit of tourism wouldn’t hurt the slogging Dayton economy, either. Having a trial in Rhea County Courthouse could pull in some newspaper journalists and people like that. (The brains of the group was a transplanted New Yorker named George Rappleyea; when the trial did not turn out as well for Dayton as they’d envisioned, there were plenty of people who muttered darkly about Rappleyea being a “New Yorker.”)
The trial did pull in some journalists — from all over the world.
Although Clarence Darrow got the most attention as Scopes’s lawyer, the ACLU and its lawyers carved the path which still leads to the First Amendment’s mandate: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
And neither could Tennessee, although it did not repeal the 1925 Butler Act until 1967.