Glenn Branch's picture

Censoring Evolution in the Senate?

Cole BleaseI was reading Edward Caudill’s Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign against Evolution (2013) recently. I won’t say a lot about it here, because I’ve just sent a review of it to a magazine, but I’ll quote my description of it: “Edward Caudill contends that his Intelligently Designed distinctively emphasizes ‘the use of enduring cultural myths and the dexterous employment of mass media’ ... in explaining the success of the creationist movement, and further proposes that the Scopes trial of 1925 established a template for the ensuing developments.” Caudill is a former journalist, now professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, so the emphasis on media is unsurprising. But I was surprised to see him writing, on p. 17, “In 1922, the U.S. Senate went so far as to debate, but eventually reject, legislation to outlaw proevolution radio broadcasts.” Really?

Caudill cited Ronald L. Numbers’s The Creationists (2006) as well as a 1987 paper by Edward J. Larson, and those are two historians whom I generally trust to get the details right. Still, my motto is trust but verify (when, that is, it’s not when in doubt, nitpick), so I checked in The Creationists. Caudill had cited pp. 53–55; indeed, on p. 55 there appears, “Even the United States Senate debated—but eventually rejected—an amendment that would have banned radio broadcasts favorable to evolution.” Numbers cites Willard P. Gatewood Jr.’s sourcebook Controversy in the Twenties: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and Evolution (1969), of which, as luck would have it, I have a copy at hand. When published, it cost $10; my mint used copy cost me $20 in 2009, a bargain. You don’t have to pay anything to read the Senate debate, such as it was, though, because—not seeing it anywhere on the internet—I’m going to transcribe it here.  

Let me set the stage first. Under discussion is the Dill Radio Control Bill, proposed by Senator C. C. Dill of Washington, which would establish the Federal Radio Commission, to take over the duties of regulating the airwaves from the Department of Commerce. Speaking, besides Dill, are Senators Coleman Blease of South Carolina (whose picture appears above), Thomas Heflin of Alabama, and Royal Copeland of New York. The date is July 2, 1926—Caudill misinterpreted a reference to 1922 at the beginning of the paragraph in The Creationists, I think. Beginning on p. 327 of Gatewood’s text:

Mr. Blease. Mr. President, I offer the amendment which I send to the desk.

The Vice President. The amendment will be stated.

            The Chief Clerk. On page 59, after line 15, it is proposed to insert the following as a new section.

            Sec. 25. The commission is further empowered to make and enforce regulations to censor and prohibit all discourses broadcast from stations under its control regarding the subject of evolution.

Mr. Dill. Mr. President, that is an amendment, as the Senate can readily see, which gives the commission the power to censor. I am willing to let the Senate vote on it, and if the Senate cares to accept it, it can go to conference.

Mr. Blease. Mr. President, I am willing to have the amendment voted on. I should like to have an expression of the Senate of the United States on the subject as to whether or not we are going to create a commission and let them censor almost everything in the world except the question of religion without anyone having a say as to what subjects along that line shall or shall not be discussed. [327/328]

Personally I want to go on record on it. It does not make any difference to me whether the Senate adopts the amendment or not, but I am willing for the world to know that on this proposition I am on the side of Jesus Christ.

Mr. Dill. I want to correct a statement which the Senator has made.

The Senator from South Carolina, I know, does not want to make a mis-statement. The bill does not give to the commission the power to censor programs, but instead it specifically prohibits the commission from censoring programs in any way. I wish that statement to go in the record, to clear up any misapprehension that might arise.

Mr. Blease. That does not change my position, Mr. President.

Mr. Heflin. Mr. President, I took the position yesterday and the day before that people ought to be at liberty to discuss anything they want to over the radio, and that the special interests ought not to be able to suppress free speech. The Senator from South Carolina [Blease] and I occupy the same position with regard to the Bible theory of creation—that God made man just as the Bible tells us He did.

Last year, when I was delivering a few addresses about the country, a gentleman asked me on one occasion if I was going to discuss evolution. I said, “No; not particularly.” “Well,” he said, “most of our people here believe that God made man, but there are a few who hold to the Darwinian or evolution theory regarding the origin of man.” “Well,” I said, “I have no desire to hurt the feelings of anybody. So far as I am concerned, I find a great deal of comfort and satisfaction in the belief that God Almighty made my ancestors, but I am willing for those who hold to a contrary view regarding theirs to think as they choose among the subject. If they insist that they sprung from monkeys, I shall not quarrel with them, because they know more about their ancestors than I do, and they may be right about it.” [Laughter]

I told him what occurred in my home county in Alabama. I said “That question has been settled. The Negroes had an immense mass meeting out at the Greenwood Church in Chambers, Alabama. They assembled at 10 o’clock one Sunday morning and held forth until 5 in the afternoon. They read various passages of the Bible pertaining to the creation of man, and at 5 o’clock old Uncle Rufus got up and offered a resolution which was unanimously adopted. The resolution said: Resolved, God Almighty made all the niggers and most of the white folks, [328/329] but all them white folks what thinks they sprung from monkeys is right about it.” [Laughter in the Senate and galleries.]

The Vice President. The question is on the amendment offered by the Senator from South Carolina.

Mr. Copeland. Mr. President, I could not bear to have this amendment go without one word. I can not see why the Senate of the United States should be disturbed over the subject of evolution. You may be surprised, Mr. President, to know it, but I believe in religion and try to be religious; even so, I believe in evolution, and am glad to give public testimony to both these facts. I hope the amendment will be defeated.

Several Senators. Vote!

The Vice President. The question is on the amendment offered by the Senator from South Carolina.

            The amendment was rejected.

From Congressional Record, 69 Congress, 1 Session, LXVII, 12615. [Except for numerals indicating page breaks in the text, bracketed comments appear in Gatewood’s Controversy in the Twenties. Bolded text was originally in small capitals.]

Writing that “Heflin devoted most of his semijocular discussion to a reiteration of hackneyed antievolution jokes,” Gatewood signally fails to mention the distasteful racism of his remarks—which must have been fairly mild for Heflin, actually, who was a vicious racist and probably a member of the Ku Klux Klan. During his political career, “Cotton Tom” argued against votes for blacks, for the practice of convict leasing, often viewed as a de facto reinstatement of chattel slavery despite the Thirteenth Amendment, and against the legalization of interracial marriage.

Anyhow, Caudill and Numbers misstated the nature of Blease’s amendment somewhat. It would not have banned radio broadcasts favorable to evolution. Rather, it would have merely given the Federal Radio Commission the power to make regulations prohibiting broadcasts about evolution; it would not have required the commission to do so. Moreover, if the commission exercised that power, it isn’t clear that it would be able to ban only broadcasts favorable to evolution: perhaps antievolution broadcasts would have to be banned as well. Caudill and Numbers overstated the significance of Blease’s amendment, too. It’s clear that Blease didn’t understand the bill that he was seeking to amend and that he didn’t expect his amendment to be accepted anyhow: it was hardly a debate at all, and the rejection was not eventual but immediate. The exchange recorded in Gatewood's sourcebook simply wasn’t a serious discussion of whether to censor evolution on the air.