Saturday, April 21, 2007

Too bad Harlem High won't do it again

The current Broadway revival of the play "Inherit the Wind" brings to mind the huge controversy of 44 years ago this spring when a teacher at Harlem High School in suburban Rockford staged a student production of the piece.

The play, the movie version of which starred Spencer Tracy and Frederic March (above), is based on the celebrated trial of John T. Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tenn., who was arrested in 1925 for teaching biological evolution in defiance of state law.

In 1963, Harlem High dramatics teacher Ruth Ann Johnston's plans to put on the play prompted objections from some folks on biblical grounds. School Principal Harold Moore and District Superintendent Carl Dannenfeldt bowed to the pressure and told Johnston to find another play.

When Johnston refused, the School Board told her she couldn't use the Harlem auditorium for such blasphemy, whereupon she and her students accepted an offer to stage the play in a local movie theater.

Johnston subsequently was fired. The flap drew national attention, and hundreds of Harlem district taxpayers signed a petition seeking Johnston's reinstatement, but to no avail.

Wouldn't another fuss like that be fun these days? And a rousing debate about evolution would do the community good.

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