People & Events: The American Civil Liberties Union
When the state of Tennessee passed a law making it a crime to teach Darwin's theory of evolution in public schools, Roger Baldwin saw it as an opportunity. Baldwin was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, a fledgling organization devoted to individual rights.
"In 1925 the ACLU consisted of a handful of individuals who would meet essentially in one room in New York," says President Nadine Strossen. "And they were really doing something that had never been done in American history, which was suggesting that there should be individual rights that would be enforceable against government policies that were supported even by broad majorities of the American public."
"From the very beginning the ACLU advocated freedom of speech for ideas from the most extreme left such as anarchists and socialists, to the most extreme right including the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and others who would now be considered more toward the Fascist end of the spectrum."
But in 1925 few Americans had heard of the ACLU. Roger Baldwin wanted to change that. So when Tennessee passed the first anti-evolution law in history, he seized the opportunity to make a case for civil liberty.
The ACLU placed an ad in all the major Tennessee newspapers: "We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing this law in the courts. Our lawyers think a friendly test case can be arranged without costing a teacher his or her job. ...All we need now is a willing client." Their willing client turned out to be John Thomas Scopes. But his trial would not unfold as the ACLU had expected.
John Scopes volunteered to become the ACLU's "willing client" because the town fathers of Dayton, Tennessee, after conferring in the town drugstore, asked him. Dayton was in an economic slump and they hoped the trial would create so much publicity that people would fill the hotels, eat in the restaurants, and help boost the local economy.
Baldwin and his ACLU colleagues were not advocating for or against religion. Neither were they out to support Darwin's theory of evolution. They were supporting what Strossen calls "an abstract principle, a neutral principle of tolerance." They wanted a low-key team to defend John Scopes. Instead they got an all-out battle over science and religion.
The battle lines were drawn when William Jennings Bryan volunteered to lead the team that would prosecute Scopes. Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow had always wanted to debate Bryan over his religious beliefs. He volunteered to join the defense team, waiving his usual high fee. The Scopes trial was quickly becoming a media circus.
Though Darrow was the celebrity, ACLU attorney Arthur Garfield Hayes was the mastermind. He and Darrow conceived a two-part strategy for the trial. Their first goal was to convince Judge John T. Raulston to overturn the anti-evolution law. If that failed, they planned to demonstrate the logic and the truth of evolution. The judge disappointed them on both counts, upholding the law and ruling that the scientific testimony was irrelevant to the case.
The ACLU lost the Scopes trial, but gained a national reputation. In 1926 Darrow and the ACLU appealed the case before the Tennessee Supreme Court. The court overturned John Scopes' conviction, but kept the anti-evolution law on the books. However, it was a toothless law by then, and never again enforced.
Over the next sixty years, new laws restricting the teaching of evolution were passed by several states. One by one the courts overturned them. Over that same period, the ACLU grew in power and influence. Today, it continues its controversial role in American society as defender of the "neutral principal of tolerance" and free speech for all.
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