A movie surprise

As a former journalist, I’m always drawn to movies about reporters. And that’s why I just watched “Alleged,” a 2011 film about a young man who covered the Scopes Monkey Trial.

This was the sensational 1925 trial of John Scopes, who was accused of teaching evolution in Tennessee public schools — a violation of state law. He was defended by the famed attorney Clarence Darrow and prosecuted by William Jennings Bryan, a three-time candidate for U.S. President.

As portrayed in the film, the trial was basically a show — a war of words between those who accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution and those who believed in the biblical story of creation. There were many scenes in which Darrow, played by Brian Dennehy, and Bryan, played by Fred Thompson, argued the merits of the two sides.

But what struck me about the movie was a side narrative about social Darwinism, the belief that survival of the fittest applies to humans not only in the biological sense, but also in social and political realms. Social Darwinism, which was a strongly held belief at the time of the Scopes trial, holds that superior people will survive and inferior people will not.

In “Alleged,” the lead female character has a sister who is believed to be inferior — she is half-black and half-white and lives in a home for epileptics. Her racial makeup and her epilepsy made her a candidate for sterilization, social Darwinism’s answer to ridding society of defective people. Many believed if this girl wasn’t sterilized, she would give birth to more racially mixed children with epilepsy and they would be a drain on society.

The same belief system was applied to criminals, poor people and individuals with disabilities. It was widely accepted that criminal behavior, poverty and intellectual and physical disabilities were hereditary. The obvious remedy during the eugenics movement that swept the country in the early 20th century was sterilization.

In all, 27 states passed laws allowing compulsory sterilization of supposedly “defective” people. The girl in the movie was saved from the sterilization knife at the last minute, but tens of thousands of people in this country were not. Estimates are that around 50,000 people — most of them in institutions — were sterilized as a result of sterilization laws that remained in effect until the 1960s.

This little-known, little-discussed aspect of American history plays an important role in the story of my Uncle Melrose, who had an intellectual disability and was born in 1921 at the height of the eugenics movement. He and his family (which included my Dad, his brother) and thousands of others like them endured shame, fear and guilt — all magnified because of widespread misconceptions about heredity and the causes of disabilities.

My hat’s off to Fred Foote, who wrote and produced “Alleged,” for bringing attention to this extremely important episode in American history.