Florida’s Greatest Menace: Introduction

Welcome to the Florida’s Greatest Menace series here at Florida Citizens for Science. I’ll be writing posts over the next few months chronicling the history of the evolution/creationism controversy as it relates directly to the Sunshine State. Here is a taste of what is to come:

I’m sorry to dump this cliché on you, but I have to: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. With that in mind, It’s obvious that Florida has been stuck in a time warp for more than 80 years when it comes to the hot potato subject of evolution in the public schools. The antievolution fire first sparked here in 1923 when the Florida legislature passed a resolution condemning “atheism, agnosticism, Darwinism, or any other hypothesis that links man in blood relation to any other form of life.” William Jennings Bryan, who lived in Florida his last few years of life, proclaimed that evolution was “the greatest menace facing the church today.” It’s obvious that the antievolutionists who stood before the state Board of Education and the state legislature in 2008 challenging the subject’s teaching felt much the same way Bryan did. The tactics may have changed over the decades, but the sentiment remains the same.

For the past several months I’ve been researching the history of the evolution/creationism controversy in Florida. What I’ve discovered is both shocking and funny. The Florida Purity League and the Bible Crusaders of America formed here in the 1920s with the main purpose of driving evolution out of the schools. A bill introduced in the 1972 state legislature wanted “to require in the teaching of evolution the reading of appropriate religious passages dealing with creation and evolution including, but not limited to, chapters one and two of Genesis.” Hillsborough County’s school board voted in 1980 to require the teaching of scientific creationism. Evolution became an issue for governors in 1986 and 1990. School boards throughout Florida were pressured to add creationist literature to their classrooms, and some complied.

This history is as comprehensive as I can make it. I’ve been collecting old newspaper clippings, books, journals, legislative historical files, and anything else that I can dig up. But I have no doubt there is much, much more out there. As such, even when the last installment of this series is posted, I won’t consider the journey complete. I need your help to flesh out this fascinating story. Were you involved in or an eyewitness to any of the evolution/creationism fights that have popped up all across Florida (Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Broward, Pinellas, Manatee, Lake, St. Lucie, and Lee counties)? If so, I would love to talk with you. Do you have any documents that can add some depth or color to this tale? Send them to me. Can you spare some time to go digging through your county’s historical archives to find board meeting minutes, handouts and recordings? Please do so and then let me know what you find.

Part I: Improper and subversive — William Jennings Bryan moves to Miami and helps launch the first antievolution efforts in Florida.
Part II: Objectionable phraseology — The Bible Crusaders of America form in Clearwater, take on evolution in Florida’s textbooks, and win.
Part III: Tongue-torturing tactics — A monumental antievolution fight brings the 1927 Florida legislature to a literal screeching halt.
Part IV: Free love and monkey teaching — Antievolution efforts sputter out by the end of the 1920s, but don’t die off for good.
Part V: Brainwashing students — A retired minister rebuilds the Florida anitevolution movement in the 1970s and the state legislature sees “scientific creationism” for the first time.
Part VI: Misconceptions, misinterpretations and misinformation –  Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties both seriously consider inserting creationism into their schools during December board meetings in 1979.
Part VI 1/2: Getting the adults annoyed — This “bonus” part is a short Q & A with a man today who was the teen who spoke up in favor of evolution education in 1979.
Part VII: Causing the Nation to Fall! — Creationism is approved in two counties and attracts national attention.
Still to come: Part VIII shows how events on the national level unravel Florida creationists’ plans.

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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