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We’re deep into Black History Month, with culture wars continuing unabated, especially when it comes to what should be taught in the classroom.

Arguments over curriculum are nothing new; the classic example played out nearly a century ago amid bombastic arguments by two of the nation’s premier orators and lawyers, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

They clashed in proceedings sparked by a Tennessee law that barred the teaching of evolution in public schools. Millions of students have since studied the Scopes “monkey trial,” an epithet bestowed on the trial’s circus-like atmosphere by satirical journalist H.L. Mencken.

As we watch today, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis does his best to influence how schools in his state should (or shouldn’t) teach the truth about Black history, the 1925 trial of teacher John T. Scopes still offers wise counsel.      

It came from Scopes’s defense lawyer, Darrow, near the end of the weeklong trial’s second day. He was warning of reactionary censorship when Judge John T. Raulston cut him short, saying, “Sorry to interrupt, but it’s adjournment time.” 

Darrow begged, “If I may, I can close in five minutes… your honor – give me five minutes more.”

He got his time, and it was enough to sound an Orwellian caution that’s as valid today as it was 98 years ago, on a sweltering July afternoon in tiny Dayton, Tenn.

What became a national spectacle started as a parochial conspiracy in Fred Robinson’s drug store, a village hub.

Wanting to challenge the new anti-evolution law, the American Civil Liberties Union had advertised for a teacher who would agree to break it.

A small group at Fred’s, lamenting how their town was economically stagnant, saw an opportunity: If they could find a local volunteer, fame, and fortune would descend on Dayton during a trial that would pit science against fundamentalist dogma. 

They invited 24-year-old science teacher Scopes to the store, and when he agreed to be the test case he opened a riveting chapter in American history.

Dayton, with its population of 1,800, became a sensation, its streets flush with banners, lemonade stands, and even a performing chimpanzee.

Nearly a thousand people flooded in for the trial; so many crowded the courthouse that the judge, fearing the floor would collapse, moved proceedings outdoors.

Ironically, Darrow had hoped the court would find his client guilty – which it did. His idea was to appeal a conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court so the law could be quashed as unconstitutional. But the plan failed when Tennessee’s Supreme Court dismissed the charge against Scopes on a technicality, effectively ending constitutional appeals. 

Tennessee repealed the law on its own, but not for another 42 years.

Darrow never achieved his goal, but in that hurried, five-minute speech so long ago he packed in much of what should concern us as political  assaults on education spring up in many jurisdictions.

Said Darrow:

“If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. 

“At the next session, you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion up on the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. 

“Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more… After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed, until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted {torches} to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.”

Old words they are, but words to the wise they continue to be.

Gerry Goldstein (, a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.

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