Epperson at 50

That's me, with, left to right, Jon Epperson, Eugenie Scott, and Susan Epperson. Photograph by Paul Patmore.

Friday night I had the great pleasure – no, the honor to attend a celebration of the monumental Supreme Court decision Epperson vs. Arkansas at the house of Susan and Jon Epperson. That was the decision, 50 years ago, that struck down an Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. I may be nostalgic, but it is hard not to note that that the Court ruled by a margin of 9-0.

It was a celebration, not a seminar, so I did not take notes. In 1968, Mrs. Epperson was a biology teacher in Little Rock Central High School and, to paraphrase her words, she had a choice between violating the law, and following the law and doing her students a disservice. Had she been found guilty of violating the law, she would have lost her job. She decided to file suit preemptively and won.

Mrs. Epperson, in her remarks Friday night, averred that the real hero of Epperson was her lawyer, Eugene Warren, who prepared the case and argued before the Supreme Court. I cannot entirely agree. Mrs. Epperson was the ideal plaintiff. She was bright and articulate, and undoubtedly made an excellent witness. She was a native of Arkansas and a believing Christian. Her father, also a believing Christian, was a biology professor at what is now the University of the Ozarks. Perhaps importantly, her husband was an Air Force officer with top secret security clearance, so it would have been difficult for anyone to have red-baited them. Interestingly, her son Mark has a Masters degree in divinity, whereas her daughter Elaine has a PhD in (I think) molecular biology.

Mrs. Epperson’s husband Jon, to whom she had been married for 3 months when she undertook the lawsuit, was instantly supportive and apparently served as archivist, collecting and filing both supportive mail and hate mail. It may be instructive that 50 years ago Mrs. Epperson did not think that she was in any physical danger, despite some of the mail she received.

I will conclude with two of the pictures that were handed out during the celebration and doubtless come from Mr. Epperson’s archive. The first is a photograph of Mrs. Epperson with John Scopes in 1959. Mr. Scopes declined to participate in the legal proceeding but observed, correctly, that Mrs. Epperson was (I think I have the right adjective) “attractive.” The second, with the headline “Wants to Teach Evolution,” was one of the milder criticisms; it reads, “There is a striking resemblance between you and a monkey. I would advise you to go ahead and teach it [evolution]. You are living proof of it.”

Epperson and John Scopes
Newspaper clipping