Looking Back with Epperson, Fifty Years Later

This past July (2018), I had the pleasure of hosting NCSE Teacher Ambassadors at Georgia Southern for a two-day workshop. During our time together, we shared and explored content and best practices for teaching, covering everything from recent fossil discoveries to how to deal with conflict in the classroom. Early on, Stephanie Keep gave us a quick run-down on the history of evolution education in the United States, including the legal cases that set precedent for science teaching.

One slide featured a black-and-white photograph of a woman I had seen before, but many of our teachers had not. The picture was of Susan Epperson, classroom teacher and advocate. Keep told the assembled teachers to remember that this was all recent history. So recent, she said, that the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas, which overturned a ban on evolution and set precedent for the unconstitutionality of similar laws, is still actively supporting science education today.

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of her case, NCSE asked if I would be willing to reach out to Susan Epperson and ask her to reflect on her experiences. What an opportunity! Evolution education is a topic that is very dear to my heart. Like Epperson, I was raised in a religious community in the South.

Also like Epperson, I have experienced firsthand the pressures, concerns, and challenges that learning and teaching evolution can bring in this region, well-known for cultural and political undercurrents that tend to be seen as in conflict with evolutionary science. For a person to have the strength of will to stand up for teachers in the way that Susan Epperson did is inspiring and empowering to future generations of science teachers and advocates alike. It’s a story worth telling, because today, fifty years later, there continue to be efforts to undermine and dilute the teaching of evolution in both blatant and surreptitious ways. We need Epperson’s story to remind us of what can and should be done in the face of challenges to the teaching of accepted science.

Epperson v. Arkansas

The 1927 Arkansas law under which Susan Epperson sued was similar to Tennessee’s Butler Act of 1925, under which John T. Scopes was prosecuted. But where the Butler Act only imposed a fine, its Arkansas counterpart allowed the offending teacher to be dismissed. An unsuccessful attempt to repeal the law in 1965 prompted the Arkansas Education Association (AEA) to orchestrate a lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality. At the time, Susan Epperson taught biology at Central High School in Little Rock. She was expected to use a textbook that discussed human evolution, making her an ideal plaintiff. She was in a position to contend that the law was unconstitutional and also that it required her to choose between miseducating her students and being fired. I asked Epperson why she thinks she was recruited, and she said, “It’s possible [Executive Secretary of the AEA] Forrest Rozzell and his lawyer had me in mind when I was hired … Mr. Rozzell knew I was a Christian, a native of Arkansas, thus not some ‘outside agitator,’ which might be avenues of attack from any opposition.” 

Epperson’s challenge to the law was instantly a matter of public controversy and drew a range of reactions. “[I received] many very encouraging positive notes, from people I knew and some I didn’t,” she told me. “[But I also got] quite a few notes telling me I am going to hell, also some comparing me to a monkey.” What about from your colleagues? I asked. Epperson responded, “My principal, Mr. Harry Carter, was completely supportive, saying, ‘This has needed doing for a long time. If you have any trouble with anyone in the building, let me know.’ Wonderful to have that kind of support. One teacher did confront me in the teachers’ lounge saying, ‘you’re just a pawn in their hands.’ But I happily recall a note Mrs. Patty Hadley, English teacher, left in my box saying, ‘Bully for you!’ Those sorts of memories help make it all worthwhile!”

The state trial began on April 1, 1966. Epperson (who had been told by her lawyer to expect the case to be settled out of court) was nervous but appeared calm and collected on the witness stand. “After some moments of panic, I just knew I needed to follow through with what I had said I’d do.” The court’s decision, issued on May 27, 1966, was that the anti-evolution law was unconstitutional. The state promptly appealed the decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the anti-evolution law in a two-sentence decision issued on June 5, 1967. Epperson and her lawyers in turn appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. On October 16, 1968, oral arguments were heard with Epperson in attendance. The unanimous decision in favor of Epperson was announced less than a month later, on November 12, 1968.

From Bans to “Balance”

The Supreme Court’s decision was featured in headlines around the country. John T. Scopes, whom Epperson met for lunch in 1969, told the Associated Press that the decision came “43 years too late.” By the time of the Epperson decision, the Butler Act was already a thing of the past, repealed by the Tennessee legislature in 1967. Still on the books, though, was Mississippi’s 1926 anti-evolution law. It was swiftly challenged, and in 1970, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that “in Epperson ... the Supreme Court ... has for all practical purposes already held that our anti-evolution statutes are unconstitutional.”

Of course, the affirmed unconstitutionality of evolution bans did not deter anti-evolution groups for long. In the wake of the Epperson decision, efforts to “balance” the teaching of evolution in the public schools with various supposedly scientifically credible alternatives, whether biblical creation, creation science, or “intelligent design,” became common. These efforts were challenged in the federal courts, with victories for the cause of evolution education in such cases as Daniel v. Waters (1975), McLean v. Arkansas (1982), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005)—all citing the Epperson decision as a crucial precedent.

The View from Arkansas

As for Epperson's home state of Arkansas, the legislature has not been swayed by the pattern of losses. Anti-evolution bills have been introduced many times, even as recently as 2017. The hostility toward evolution in the state has left its mark, as it has in so many other communities in the South and around the nation. In 2009, Mark W. Bland and Randy Moore surveyed Arkansas public high school biology teachers about what they present about evolution, finding that 27 percent of teachers disagreed with the statement that teaching creationism was inappropriate, going a long way to explaining why a full 23 percent were teaching creationism in their classrooms. While headway is being made in supporting and encouraging teachers to teach evolution, public opinion on the matter has not changed as much as might be hoped in the last 30 years. Even the mere mention of the word "evolution" in science education standards continues to be a source of controversy—especially in the South.

An Agent of Change

Looking back fifty years later, I asked Epperson what she took away from it all. “Well, obviously our case did not solve the problem. As long as preachers tell their congregations that this is an anti-God idea, then there will be efforts to remove it from classes. I have learned that one cannot debate the validity of evolution with students in class. Evidence that evolution occurred is abundant, so look at the science.”

In other words, scientific evidence exists for us to follow where it leads. With students, we must define what science is and what it is not. Science is based on the evidence, not on faith; science is self-correcting, and it is not setting out to prove or disprove but rather to open our understanding through discovery.

Speaking with Epperson was an amazing experience. Her willingness to stand up for what she believes, especially at a time when she had so much to lose and felt pressure to abandon her cause from many directions, should be a reminder to us all that anyone, including a young high school science teacher in Little Rock, has the potential to bring about great change. 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Mark W. Bland, Randy Moore, Eugenie C. Scott, and especially Susan Epperson, for discussions and resources.

A modified version of this post originally appeared in Reports of the National Center for Science Education 38(4). If you like this interview, you're going to love the whole issue.

Amanda Glaze is an Assistant Professor of Middle Grades & Secondary Science Education at Georgia Southern University aglaze@georgiasouthern.edu