The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has always been fond of Clarence Darrow.
Back in 2009, the foundation put the celebrated—and at times controversial—attorney’s picture inside a Madison Metro bus, along with a Darrow quote: “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.”
Darrow was one of several historical figures utilized in the bus advertising campaign by the foundation, which was founded in the 1970s by the late Anne Gaylor and her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor. Annie Laurie and her husband, Dan Barker, today are co-presidents of the foundation, which bills itself as an organization upholding the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.
The foundation has once again embraced Darrow, this time at the site of one of his most famous cases, the little town of Dayton, Tennessee. I first read about it last month in the New York Times and last week reached Dan Barker by phone to get more details.
Courtroom gladiators like Darrow—and his contemporary, Earl Rogers, who once represented Darrow on jury tampering charges—have always fascinated me.
In July 1925, Dayton, in eastern Tennessee, played host to what became known worldwide as the Scopes monkey trial. John Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, was on trial for teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law.
Darrow defended Scopes at the Rhea County courthouse. The most famous member of the prosecution team was William Jennings Bryan, a former presidential candidate and secretary of state, and a well-known creationist.
Scopes was convicted and fined $100, which was later overturned. But Darrow’s examination of Bryan himself on the witness stand regarding Bryan’s acceptance of the Bible as historical fact may have won in the court of public opinion.
Now fast forward some 75 years.
In 2001, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Rhea County on behalf of the parents of two students over Bible instruction in the public schools. The foundation won the lawsuit and a federal appeals court upheld that verdict in 2004.
A year later, in 2005, Bryan College, founded in 1930 in Dayton in honor of William Jennings Bryan, donated a statue of Bryan that was erected outside the Scopes trial courthouse.
It was several years later, according to Dan Barker, that a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who’d stopped in Dayton to see the site of the famous Scopes trial, took notice of the Bryan statue and reached out to the foundation.
Why wasn’t there also a statue of Darrow?
An effort to place a Darrow statue at the courthouse began, but Barker says the foundation did not immediately get involved because of potential lingering bad feelings over the 2001 lawsuit.
Supporters got the OK for a Darrow statue but fundraising lagged.
“Finally we stepped up and raised the money,” Barker says—$150,000, mostly from foundation members, for the 7-foot statue, which was created by Pennsylvania sculptor Zenos Frudakis.
The New York Times story on the Darrow statue makes clear that the town of Dayton is generally good-humored about its place in legal history and indeed has tried to capitalize on it for tourism. There’s a brewpub called the Monkey Town Brewing Co. that brews an Evolution IPA.
Still, as Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor headed to Tennessee last month for the Darrow statue unveiling, there were concerns.
“We were kind of nervous,” Barker says. “We had a meeting in Chattanooga the night before.”
But despite vague warnings from a few town residents of possible vandalism and stray lightning bolts, the dedication ceremony was cheerful and uneventful.
“It went really well,” Barker says.
The sculptor was in attendance, as was the creator of the Bryan statue.
“Darrow and Bryan were actually good friends,” Barker says.
These are good times for the foundation, despite losing its spiritual—that’s probably the wrong word—leader when Ann Gaylor died in June 2015. She was 88.
Barker says the foundation now has a full-time staff of 25, and that membership since last November’s presidential election has increased from 23,000 to almost 30,000.
As Annie Laurie said at the unveiling, “What Clarence Darrow stood for at the Scopes trial is as timely and imperative today as in 1925.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.