Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Boy Named Sue Was at the Scopes Trial

… and he wasn’t just there – he played a major role in the whole affair.

I looked up the Scopes Trial the other day for some reason. I had been aware that (not surprisingly), Inherit the Wind is not at all an accurate depiction of the events, and I recall reading once a few years ago that it was really just a publicity stunt by the town (Dayton, Tennessee).

After reading about it on Wikipedia, it seems that the whole thing was pretty much a fraud from start to finish.

Here’s the basic story: A fundamentalist legislator got a bill passed making it illegal to teach evolution. The governor signed it, apparently, to appease that constituency, figuring it would never be enforced; the standard biology textbook used in Tennessee high schools had a chapter on evolution.

Then a group of business and professional people in Dayton got the bright idea that they could goose the local economy by staging a big show trial. It would bring lots of people in to watch the trial and get publicity in all the big papers.

One of the group, a lawyer, was good friends with the football coach at the local high school, John Scopes, who also filled in as a substitute teacher as needed, so they called him in. Yes, Scopes told the group, he had taught some biology classes, but no, he couldn’t remember whether he had taught evolution or not (he later told at least a few people that he definitely hadn’t taught it). However, Scopes agreed to say he had taught evolution if that would be helpful, and the group rounded up a few students and coached them on how to testify appropriately ('appropiately' being defined as 'not truthfully').

None of this, needless to say, is depicted in Inherit the Wind, where Scopes is a teacher making a principled stand for academic freedom and scientific truth.

The plan didn’t work all that well, unfortunately. Plenty of people showed up, which gave a temporary lift to the town; but most of the publicity was bad, depicting the town as a batch of ignorant bigots.

But to get back to the headline – the lawyer who was John Scopes’ buddy was named Sue Hicks (he had been named for his mother, who died giving birth to him). In addition to his key role in setting up the whole affair, Sue Hicks served on the prosecution team at the trial.

Hicks later went on to a career as a judge and apparently came to the attention of songwriter Shel Silverstein while addressing a legal conference. Silverstein was amused by the name and wrote the song (which, needless to say, bore no resemblance to Sue Hicks’s life) that Johnny Cash would make famous.

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