John Shearer: Clarence Darrow Statue Unveiled In Dayton Ceremonies

Friday, July 14, 2017 - by John Shearer

After more than 90 years, noted trial lawyer and civil liberties advocate Clarence Darrow finally returned to Dayton, Tn., Friday morning.
 
Or at least his likeness did for a reason other than performing in the “Front Page News,” the annual dramatic reproduction of the famous 1925 Scopes Trial at the Rhea County Courthouse.
 
With the help of a $150,000 gift from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose philosophy is “protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church,” a Darrow statue was dedicated on the courthouse lawn.

 
“We are here to unveil the missing link at the Rhea County Courthouse,” said FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor during the ceremonies attended by about 150-200 people.
 
The statue was made by noted Philadelphia area sculptor Zenos Frudakis, who has had such people as golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer pose for him and whose works are owned by such well-known entertainers as Dick Cavett and Kris Kristofferson.
 
This statue shows Mr. Darrow pointing, an action that Mr. Frudakis said after the ceremony was a composite of various scenes and moments in the noted lawyer’s life.
 
Mr. Frudakis mostly thanked people during the program, but afterward in an interview thought a statue of the noted free thinker was needed.
 
“I was trying to convey that there was a need for this voice of reason, especially today,” he said.
 
The bronze statue sits near the northeast corner of the Rhea County Courthouse and is intended by Darrow statue proponents to help balance – physically and ideologically – the statue of Scopes Trial adversary William Jennings Bryan on the southeast corner.
 
The Bryan statue — which is the same size as the Darrow one — had been dedicated there on Oct. 1, 2005, by supporters of Bryan College and was constructed by well-known Chattanooga native and sculptor Cessna Decosimo.
 
Mr. Decosimo attended the Friday dedication and was introduced. That was one of several examples of organizers stating they wanted to make the event conciliatory and desired to praise the memories and historical significance of both Mr. Darrow and Mr. Bryan.
 
As emcee and Free Thought Society official Margaret Downey added after pointing out that both Mr. Darrow and Mr. Bryan believed in treating other humans with decency, “We can carry that cordial mantra here today.”
 
She had earlier accidentally mispronounced the name of “Rhea” County.
 
Some Rhea County residents and officials were not overly supportive of the Darrow statue. Reasons ranged from Mr. Darrow’s agnostic religious outlook, to the fact that the popular and outwardly Christian Mr. Bryan left a larger local legacy with the establishment of Bryan College in his memory.
 
One local resident said after the ceremony that she was not overly supportive of the statue, but was fine with it. Regarding many of the other local residents, the person, who did not want to give her name, said, “I don’t think many of them liked it.”
 
No local officials formally took part in the ceremony, other than two or three armed law enforcement officials who stood on the periphery as normal security.
 
Among those also making remarks was FFRF co-president Dan Barker, who also provided period music on the electric keyboard beforehand. He made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the heat, saying, “Thank goodness for the ‘evolution’ of air conditioning.” 

Other participants included actor John de Lancie, who has performed on the “Star Trek” television series and was in a production of a Scopes Trial drama opposite Ed Asner. He dramatically read some of Mr. Darrow’s and Mr. Bryan’s words.
 
Andrew Kersten of Idaho, the biographer of the 2011 book, “Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast,” and another speaker, pointed out that Mr. Darrow and Mr. Bryan actually had four similarities, including that they were friendly adversaries.
 
“Darrow was shocked and saddened after Bryan’s death,” he said about the lawyer after he heard that Mr. Bryan had died in Chattanooga’s Ross Hotel shortly after the Scopes Trial ended.
 
He also said they were both Democrats who thought the American political system should serve the working class first, that each strongly believed the other’s ideology was wrong, and that they believed the American experience should be about a jockeying of ideas.
 
When the time came for the unveiling of the statue at the end, the black covering would not come off for several moments. Finally, with the help of actor Mr. de Lancie and a 1920s-style umbrella, it was removed amid applause.
 
Besides Mr. Barker’s performance, other audio entertainment during the program – although unintentional – included a passing train tooting its whistle and the striking of the historic courthouse clock chimes.
 
Before the program started, a banner was hanging on the courthouse behind the program stage that said “Read Your Bible.” As Ms. Downey began speaking, it was turned over by organizers so that its blank backside was visible.
 
The Bible, of course, was at the heart of the July 1925 trial, which some have argued was primarily a publicity stunt to bring attention to Dayton. It had come about after Rhea County teacher John Thomas Scopes was cited to court for reportedly teaching evolution in violation of a new state law.
 
The American Civil Liberties Union had been looking for someone to test the law, and Dayton officials saw an article about that in the Chattanooga Times and thought it might be good publicity for Dayton.
 
The trial in and outside the 1891 courthouse ended up resulting in a moderate fine for Mr. Scopes after he was found guilty of teaching evolution – even though the conviction was later tossed out because the judge, and not a jury, decided the fine.
 
But it became a larger debate over the issue of religion versus science, an argument that still exists today. And with Mr. Bryan representing the state and the equally articulate Mr. Darrow representing Mr. Scopes, it became an even more memorable event that drew the nation’s eyes for a period.
 
On Friday, a few dozen people had their eyes back on the courthouse, but they were likely no more comfortable in the hot July sun than their counterparts of a 100 years ago. Waving fans inscribed with the words “fan of reason” – a nod to Mr. Darrow – were handed out.
 
And now both Mr. Bryan and Mr. Darrow stand collectively tall again on this courthouse lawn amid some other giants – the tall trees.
 
To hear an interview with sculptor Zenos Frudakis, listen here:

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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