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Ideology in The 1920s

Culture War: Country vs. City, Tradition vs. Modernity

The rapid pace of technological, economic, and cultural change during the Roaring Twenties provoked a considerable backlash among those Americans left behind by modernity—farmers deprived of any economic gains from the new economy, nativists beset by New Immigrants, Christian fundamentalists angered by Darwinian challenges to the literal word of god, traditional moralists offended by the escapades of flappers and appalled by the illegal boozing of the speakeasy.

Hollywood and the Resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan

The traditionalist backlash took many forms, but perhaps its most dramatic manifestation came in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The original Ku Klux Klan, organized in the South after the Civil War, had served as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic Party, terrorizing blacks and Republicans to dissuade them from exercising their civil rights. Following the collapse of Reconstruction in 1876, which allowed Southern states to reimpose white power through the creation of virtual one-party Democratic regimes, the KKK was no longer necessary, and it withered away.

The Ku Klux Klan revival began in 1915 with the theatrical release of D.W. Griffith's film, "The Birth of a Nation." The cinematic epic, which was considered by many to be the greatest film of its age, portrayed Klansmen sympathetically as heroic defenders of white civilization against the depredations of freed slaves run amok. The film's most controversial scene depicted white-hooded Klansmen riding gallantly to the rescue of a white maiden about to be raped by a savage black man. The film's racism seems disgusting today, but in 1915 "The Birth of a Nation" set a record for box office profits that would stand for 22 years. President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the film's racist historical revisionism, describing the film as "history writ with lighting... all so terribly true."

Birth of a Backlash: Four Million Klansmen

The film generated a new enthusiasm for the Klan, its symbols and regalia. Later in 1915, a failed doctor named William J. Simmons organized a new Klan in Atlanta, announcing it to the world by burning a great fiery cross atop Stone Mountain. Grand Wizard Simmons's new KKK spread throughout the United States in the 1920s, becoming the most important mouthpiece for a traditionalist politics that was not only anti-black but also anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-immigrant, anti-alcohol, anti-sex, and anti-science. The Klan's greatest strength lay not—as many would assume—in the South, but rather in the Midwest and West. The Klan won virtual control of the state governments of Colorado and Indiana (where Klansman Ed Johnson became Governor), and wielded heavy influence in Oregon, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and several other states. An estimated four million Americans were paid members; some historians even claim that President Warren G. Harding was initiated into the Klan in a special secret ceremony inside the White House.13

The widespread popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s revealed the depth of traditionalist resistance to the dizzying social and cultural changes wrought by the Roaring Twenties.

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial

Perhaps the single most famous Roaring Twenties confrontation between the opposing forces of modernity and traditionalism was the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial, in which celebrity lawyers argued both sides in the case of a Tennessee schoolteacher charged with teaching evolution in violation of state law. Many Americans today know the Scopes trial as it was portrayed (in fictionalized form) in Inherit The Wind, a popular play and movie of the 1950s, which depicted the trial as an epic showdown over the proper relationship between church and state in America. The events of the real trial were, in fact, much more bizarre than those of Inherit The Wind.

Putting Darwin on Trial, Putting Dayton on the Map

The story of the Monkey Trial began in early 1925, when fundamentalist Christians in the Tennessee legislature sought to defend the sanctity of the Bible as the literal word of God by passing a new law that made it illegal for any public schoolteacher "to teach any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."14 Darwin's Theory of Evolution thus became taboo in Tennessee classrooms.

There was one minor problem: The state had already adopted a standardized biology curriculum built around a textbook—George Hunter's Civic Biology—that taught evolution. Thus every biology teacher in the great state of Tennessee who taught from the state-approved textbook was forced to break the new law.

Out-of-state lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) thought that the farcical legal conundrum created for teachers by Tennessee's new law violated the Constitution's protections of the separation of church and state. The ACLU placed ads in Tennessee newspapers, offering to provide legal representation for any teacher willing to go on trial to test the new law.

At this point, the story got weird. Struggling businessmen in the small eastern Tennessee hamlet of Dayton reasoned that their town could put itself on the map and benefit economically if it hosted the evolution trial, which would be sure to generate widespread media attention throughout the country. The Scopes "Monkey" Trial thus began as publicity stunt.

Dayton's businessmen asked their friend John Scopes, a local football coach who sometimes also worked as a substitute teacher, to volunteer to stand trial for illegally teaching evolution. Only one problem: Scopes (who apparently was not the world's greatest teacher) wasn't even sure whether he had actually taught evolution or not during a recent two-week stint subbing for the biology teacher at County High School. Scopes's reply to the Dayton town boosters was almost as strange as the subsequent trial: "If you can prove that I've taught evolution, and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I'll be willing to stand trial."15 During the trial, the ACLU-led defense blocked Scopes from taking the stand in order to prevent him from revealing how little he understood about evolution and that he probably had never actually taught it to Dayton's students.

Circus or Holy War?

Having got their defendant—flawed though he may have been—Dayton's boosters set out to build up hype for the trial. They wanted world-famous celebrities to serve as lawyers for both sides. They initially asked British science fiction writer H.G. Wells to lead the defense; surely, they reasoned, Wells would want to defend science against superstition. But Wells, who had no training in the law, declined. Despite Wells's refusal, Dayton did end up getting its celebrities, with William Jennings Bryan leading the prosecution and Clarence Darrow heading the defense. Bryan, a world-famous orator and three-time Democratic candidate for president, was also a devout Christian fundamentalist. Darrow, the country's most famous defense attorney, was also a committed agnostic. Bryan likely would have shared Darrow's assessment of the trial's significance: "Scopes isn't on trial, civilization is on trial."16

When the trial finally got underway in late July, 1925, more than a thousand people packed into the Rhea County Courthouse to behold the spectacle, which Time magazine called a "fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war."17

As a legal proceeding, the trial was a bit of a dud. The defense did not dispute that Scopes had broken the law. The judge refused to allow the defense to call expert witnesses to question the law's constitutionality. There really wasn't much in the case left to dispute. (In the end, a frustrated Clarence Darrow actually asked the jury to return a guilty verdict, hoping to be able to raise his constitutional objections to the law on appeal.)

As a circus, however, the trial did live up to its billing, especially when lead prosecutor William Jennings Bryan bizarrely volunteered to take the stand (as a hostile witness for the defense) as an expert on the Bible. Darrow's aggressive examination of Bryan had little to do with the case of John Scopes, but it turned into a dramatic debate pitting Christianity vs. science, church vs. state. After Darrow quizzed Bryan on the literal truth of seemingly impossible Biblical stories like that of Jonah and the whale, the judge sought to halt the legally dubious line of questioning. But Bryan and Darrow both wanted to carry on:

Bryan: These gentlemen [i.e., the ACLU lawyers] have not had much chance. They did not come here to try a case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it, and they can ask any questions they please.
Judge: All right.
Audience: [applause]
Darrow: Great applause from the bleachers.
Bryan: From those whom you call 'yokels.'
Darrow: I have never called them yokels.
Bryan: That is the ignorance of Tennessee, the bigotry.
Darrow: You mean who are applauding you?
Bryan: Those are the people whom you insult.
Darrow: You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion.
Judge: I will not stand for that.

In the end, neither Darrow nor Bryan got much satisfaction from the case. The trial might be considered a draw: Scopes was convicted, but on narrow factual grounds; the jury was barred from considering the deeper constitutional issues at stake. (Scopes later won on appeal, but—again—on a narrow technicality, allowing the law to stand.) Meanwhile, nationwide press coverage overwhelmingly portrayed Bryan, the people of Dayton, and opponents of evolution in general as unsophisticated "yokels" and "morons." These were harsh and unfair stereotypes, but they took hold in the imaginations of much of the public. For fifty years following the trial, the teaching of evolution came to be accepted in most American schools as uncontroversial scientific knowledge. Only in recent years has the conflict between evolution and creationism (now recast as "intelligent design") once again become a major controversy in American education.

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