(This is the third part in the Florida’s Greatest Menace series. For an introduction to the series, go here.)
Ascended or descended
Leo Stalnaker certainly didn’t like the idea of dance halls operating on Sundays. When the young man ran for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives in 1926 he was keenly focused on the betterment of public morals. He wrapped up his campaign speeches with dramatic poetry readings asking God to guide morally upright men into positions of leadership. He defended prohibition, consequently making a name for himself as a real law and order man. The man didn’t fool around.
Stalnaker (seen in the center of the photo here from the Florida Electronic Library) won a Hillsborough County seat in the Florida House at the young age of 28. He quickly set to work drafting bills outlawing the operation of dance halls on the Sabbath and requiring all schools to fly the American flag when school was in session. Stalnaker also wanted to give police the authority to search vehicles for contraband alcohol with or without a warrant. However, those issues were trivial compared to his signature piece: a law banning the teaching of any theory that “mankind either ascended or descended from a lower order of animals, or any theory not in harmony with the biblical account of the creation of mankind.”
There was quite a buzz when the bill was officially introduced. Legislators’ support for it was generally favorable, but for a wide variety of reasons. For example, House Speaker Fred Davis revealed to a Tampa newspaper that he wasn’t too crazy about the bill, but that he couldn’t “vote against a bill of this kind, because my people would approve of it.” On the other hand, the majority of newspaper editorials blasted the bill, calling it a waste of time that would make the state a laughingstock.
State colleges had to be careful in how they reacted to the bill. Their budgets depended upon the good will of the legislature, and Stalnaker made it clear that he wasn’t above dangling that carrot if he had to. However, Dr. Hamilton Holt, the president of private school Rollins College, didn’t have to worry about such things. He told the New York Times, “Florida should not become the butt of ridicule throughout the country as has the state of Tennessee by the passage of the anti-evolution bill now before the legislature.” The college’s newspaper, The Rollins Sandspur, was proud to proclaim in its May 6, 1927 issue that Rollins was the first college in the state to take any action in the matter. Dr. Holt wrote in that issue, “Last year I declined a substantial gift for Rollins College, which was proffered on the condition that we should never teach the theory of evolution. I replied to the would-be donor that no self-respecting college would accept a gift under any conditions that limited its freedom of teaching.”
A public hearing was held when Stalnaker’s bill went to the House Committee on Education in April. Stalnaker was fired up, claiming that textbooks in the state’s high schools and colleges contained things “too vulgar to be mentioned before a mixed audience.” Speakers railed against atheists and agnostics and blamed a rise in college campus suicides on the students’ exposure to evolution in the classroom. There was opposition to the bill, but the education committee rolled right over it. The bill was passed unanimously.
At least one lawmaker couldn’t wait around for the bill to hit the House floor. Near the end of April when the House was working on a bill that would create the positions of two assistant supervisors of elementary schools, Representative A.W. Weeks attempted to amend it with this language: to determine “whether any teacher is engaged in the teaching of atheism or agnosticism or is teaching as true Darwinism or any other hypothesis that links man in blood relationship to any other form of life, or is teaching any principle or precept that is in derogation of the teaching of the Holy Bible.” The amendment was shot down. Even Stalnaker recommended against it, assuring everyone that his bill would satisfactorily address the evolution issue when it came up for its second reading.
Despite the antievolution bill’s easy passage through the education committee, it ran into a roadblock on the House floor in May. As soon as the bill popped up, some lawmakers attempted to postpone debate on it until the very end of the legislative session. After some wheeling and dealing, though, the House members instead shipped the bill to the judicial committee for further review. This set off alarm bells for the bill’s supporters, and prompted the drafting of a handful of compromise texts that watered down the language. Instead of forbidding evolution, the proposed alternatives sought to affirm that no teachings would deny God’s existence or run counter to the Bible.
Rather than helping, the multiple versions of the antievolution bill now before the judicial committee actually confused matters. Even though there were plenty of lawmakers in the committee who were antievolution, the language choices split them. The end result was that the bill was killed there by a single vote. But it turns out that state legislators have the amazing power to raise the dead.
The evening the bill was shot down in the judicial committee, antievolution bill supporters held a rally at a local high school auditorium. George Washburn of the Bible Crusaders of America (remember him from part 2?) was the master of ceremonies. Legislators gave speeches about the merits of the antievolution bill, and even former Florida governor Sidney Catts, who was hoping to make another run for the office, offered his stamp of approval. Could this show of support revive the bill?
The headline on a St. Petersburg Times article May 14, 1927 says it all: “Evolution Phoenix Plunges House into State of Chaos.” Bill supporters essentially halted all other business May 13 in an attempt to resurrect the bill. If they could round up two-thirds of the legislators to help them, they could override the judiciary committee report. Likewise, if opponents could muster enough support, they could permanently bury the bill. Unfortunately, neither side could reach their goals, so endless debate sent the session past midnight. The news article reported: “With a dozen members clamoring for the floor, the speaker adjourned the body without action, and ordered the chamber cleared.”
Early the next morning antievolution bill supporters threatened to block all other legislative business indefinitely unless their bill won approval. Finally, tired of wasting so much time on the issue, a compromise bill was passed by the full House:
It shall be unlawful to teach as fact in any school supported in whole or in part by public funds in this state any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the Divine creation of man, or to teach in any way atheism or infidelity.
It shall be unlawful for any professor, teacher, instructor of textbook committee or commission to use or adopt for use in any school in this state, supported in whole or in part by public funds any textbook which teaches as fact any theory that denies the Divine creation of man, or which teaches atheism or infidelity or that contains vulgar, obscene or indecent matter.
Violation shall be punishable by a fine not over $100.
Poet laureate on evolution
The hours spent battling over this bill had taken its toll. Legislators were permitted to leave their reactions in the official House record, and Representative F.L.D. Carr chose to express his thoughts in poetry:
I am now a legislator. Ah, woe to me!
I’m between the Devil and the deep blue sea.
This bloody evolution has already “got my goat.”
On the blasted, bloomin’ question I don’t know how to vote.
To gain my next election, I know the bill must pass,
So I guess I’ll ape the monkey by voting like an ass.
The snark just got stranger from there. Representatives Fuller Warren and R.E. Oliver tried to have Carr declared “poet laureate on evolution.” Carr then offered House Resolution No. 60:
WHEREAS, The House of representatives has for the past fifty days had inflicted upon its membership sudden and unwarranted outbursts of oratory; and
WHEREAS, Said infliction of tongue-torturing tactics has accomplished no purpose other than killing many meritorious measures; and
WHEREAS, The efforts of the effulgent oratory opponents has resolved into a contest of speed and endurance between Hon. A.W. Weeks and Hon. Fuller Warren, of the “Amen” side of the House, and Hon. J.M. Lee and Hon. W.A. Mackenzie of the “Evolution” side; and
WHEREAS, The fore-mentioned gentlemen never having been given unbridled liberty to extol their spontaneous outbursts; therefore be it
RESOLVED, That during the “Third House” session, on the night of May 28th, these gentlemen each be allowed such time as they individually require, to spout and shout on the following subject, and which appears to be their individual favorite topic: “What I Have Accomplished in This Session of the Legislature”; and be it further
RESOLVED, That the members of the House shall judge as to the merits of the tongue exercise and award to the winner of a leather medal, suitably engraved, setting forth the fact that such winner is qualified to return to the 1929 session of the Legislature and be worthy of employment in the capacity of reading clerk.
A few days later the antievolution bill appeared in the Senate, but lawmakers there refused to waste time on it like their House counterparts did. A St. Petersburg Times article reported: “When introduced in the senate, the bill immediately became a bauble, to be tossed back and forth between committees until it finally found a resting place with no report.” That doesn’t mean that the bill had no Senate supporters. Senate president John S. Taylor, who happened to be vice-president of the Bible Crusaders of America, tried to have the bill moved to the Senate floor without a committee review. Taylor wanted to sneak it out there by referring to it only by bill number rather than its title, hoping no one would notice the maneuver. Education committee members caught on, though, and they stopped the bill in its tracks. The session was nearly over and there were many other more important bills to juggle, leaving the antievolution bill out in the cold. The bill was finally dead, this time for good.
But like any good tale of suspense, there was a plot twist. The whole business about school textbooks being full of “vulgar” material had caught lawmakers’ attention. The senate passed “Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 28,” which established a committee to investigate what were in the textbooks used by state colleges. This move kept the antievolution fires burning as a couple of motivated men made life difficult for some Florida college presidents. We’ll take a look at the Florida Purity League and other textbook antievolutionists in the next installment of this series.