By Mike Steely
It took 92 years but Clarence Darrow finally stands opposite his historic opponent William Jennings Bryan in front of the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee. Bryan, the defender of Creationism during the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, got a statue in 2005 courtesy of the Bryan College Board of Trustees..
Darrow, the defender of Evolution in the trial, lost the decision by the local jury and his client, John Scopes a local teacher, received a minor fine of $100. The trial was carried live nationally on radio and was covered daily in newspapers across America.
But Darrow and his cause may have lost the battle but won the war. Two years later the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision on a technicality.
The fight was over a law the state legislature passed forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. Businessmen in Dayton talked the teacher into violating the law to get publicity and visitors to the small Rhea County Courthouse town.
Today the downtown section of Dayton remains much as it did then except for the closing on July 8th of the Rogers Pharmacy. The drug store was a popular place during the trial and founder R. F. Rogers offered his house to Bryan during and after the trial. Greeted as a hero by the citizens of Rhea County, Bryan was a former U.S. Senator and three-time presidential candidate. When he learned of the test case against the Tennessee anti-evolution law he volunteered to become part of the prosecution team.
Darrow, a nationally-known attorney who often represented unpopular causes, also learned of the case and volunteered his services..
“I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft, because here we have done our best to turn back the tide that has sought to force itself upon this modern world, of testing every fact in science by a religious dictum,” Darrow said during the trial.
During the trial Bryan took the witness chair as an expert on the Bible and Christianity. Darrow cross-examined him and his questions pitted science against a literal interpolation of the Scriptures. Immediately following the trial Bryan set out on a lecture tour but returned five days later ill and died in the Rogers’ House in Dayton. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
The Darrow statue was suggested by local resident Ruth Ann Wilson and was funded by Freedom From Religion Foundation and unveiled just a few days before the 2017 Scopes Trial Festival. The placement of the statue met some strong local opposition as an attempt by secularists to blur or remove symbols of Judeo-Christian heritage.
The Scopes Trial Festival itself, held on the lawn of the courthouse, saw little of the opposition during the Saturday staging of “Front Page News,” a Christian-based musical inside the original historic courtroom.
The Rhea County Courthouse is open to the public and visitors can stand in the original courtroom and visit a well-done museum in the basement of the historic building.
Dayton is a typical court-house county seat located on Highway 30 and Highway 60 between Kingston and Chattanooga. It’s about 90 minutes by highway from Knoxville and nearby attractions include Old Washington, the Watts Bar Dam, and the Trail of Tears monument and trail near Birchwood and Blythe’s Ferry.
You can get more information by Googling Rhea County or The Scopes Trial or contacting (423) 775-1817 for the City of Dayton or (423) 775-0361 for the Chamber of Commerce.