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The Scopes Trial and Scottsboro Trials: Summaries & Significance

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  • 0:06 Two Landmark Trials in…
  • 0:34 The Scopes 'Monkey' Trial
  • 4:47 The Scottsboro Trials
  • 8:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine two important legal cases: the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial and the Scottsboro Trials. We will highlight the events surrounding the cases, and explore the impact they had on American society.

The Scopes Trial and the Scottsboro Trials: Two Landmark Cases in American History

Although different in many ways, the Scopes Trial of 1925 and the Scottsboro Trials of the 1930s both captured the attention of the nation. Both sets of cases were extremely controversial. They both centered on themes in which American society held sharp differences of opinion. These trials were important milestones in modern American history because they reflect changing social values.

The Scopes 'Monkey' Trial

Even today, the subject of evolution is controversial in some schools. In the 1920s it was even more so. Evolution was considered so destructive to traditional, Christian values, that in 1925, the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act. This law made it illegal for public educators to teach evolution or to deny the Biblical account of man's origin. Named after John W. Butler, a fundamentalist Christian, the law prohibited the teaching of evolution at all universities and schools that were publicly funded. The act was signed into law by Tennessee governor Austin Peay on March 21, 1925.

Immediately after being passed into law, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend anyone convicted of violating the Butler Act. Believing that the small town of Dayton, Tennessee would benefit from publicity, local leaders summoned 24 year-old high school teacher John T. Scopes, and asked if he would be willing to break the law, and go through the process of challenging the Butler Act. Scopes agreed to serve as the guinea pig in this test case. He was indicted on May 25 by a grand jury.

Clarence Darrow, the famous criminal defense attorney and avowed anti-cleric, volunteered to take the case for Scopes. Former Secretary of State and 3-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan headed up the prosecution, despite the fact that he had not practiced law in over three decades. The two celebrity attorneys ensured the trial gained intense national press coverage.

The trial, formally called The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, began on July 10 under presiding judge John T. Raulston. Interestingly enough, the trial opened with a word of prayer. Over the next two weeks, reporters flocked to Dayton, while vendors set up shop selling Bibles, pamphlets, and all kinds of monkey souvenirs. A circus-like atmosphere overtook the sleepy Tennessee town. Trained chimpanzees were even brought in to perform as a way of mocking Darrow's defense team. Social critic H. L. Mencken dubbed Dayton, 'Monkeytown.'

In the blistering July heat, Darrow and Bryan argued their case. Rather than focusing on whether or not Scopes violated the Butler Act, Darrow used his time before the court to attack Bryan's belief in a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation account. Bryan was questioned directly by Darrow on a number of issues relating to the reliability of the Bible. By most accounts, Darrow was successful in humiliating Bryan.

On July 21, a jury found Scopes guilty of violating the Butler Act. Judge Raulston ordered Scopes to be fined $100.00, a fine that both Bryan and the ACLU offered to pay. Five days later Bryan died in his sleep in Dayton. The common perception was that the stress of the trial was too much for the 65-year-old man to bear.

The case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In January 1927, the court upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act, but overturned the lower court's ruling on a technicality. Justice Grafton Green found that under the state's constitution, judges could not set fines over $50.00; only a jury had this authority.

The Scopes 'Monkey' Trial, as it has come to be known, is one of the most famous cases in American history. With Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan pitted against one another, it featured what might be considered an all-star cast. The trial reflects the changing social values of the 1920s. The trial is a good example of how, throughout the 1920s, traditional Christianity was increasingly the subject of critique.

The Scottsboro Trials

The Scottsboro Trials center on the wrongful conviction of nine African American youths between 1931 to 1937. The trials were racially-tinged and reveal the unfair treatment many African Americans suffered during this time. This landmark set of cases is a famous example of the failure of the U.S. judicial system in the 'Jim Crow' South.

On March 21, 1931, several African American and white youths were hoboing on a Southern Railroad freight train. After passing into Alabama, a fight broke out between the white and black groups of youths, causing the white boys to jump off the train and report the incident. A posse was quickly rounded up to stop the train. After searching the train, two white girls were found who, in an attempt to avoid being charged with vagrancy and possibly prostitution, accused the black boys of raping them. Nine African American boys, who became known as the 'Scottsboro Boys,' were hauled off the train, tied to a truck bed, and escorted to jail in nearby Scottsboro, Alabama.

In April, the nine boys were given a hasty trial before an all-white jury in Scottsboro. Without proper representation, all but 13-year-old Roy Wright were found guilty and sentenced to death by electrocution. Recognizing the political value of intervening on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, the American Communist Party appealed the case through their legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD). In addition to challenging the ruling through conventional legal channels, the ILD waged a fierce battle for public opinion by staging national rallies and protests.

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