|William Jennings Bryan|
Today (Nov. 26) marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most significant events in the history of Conecuh County, the day that famous American statesman William Jennings Bryan delivered a speech in downtown Evergreen, Ala.
Many of you will remember from school that Bryan ran unsuccessfully for President three times - in 1896, 1900 and 1908 - and that he later served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1915.
Wilson made a series of strong demands against Germany after they torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania on May 1, 1915, and Bryan, who was an advocate for peace, clashed with Wilson over his demands and resigned in protest from his position as Secretary of State.
Nicknamed “The Great Commoner,” Bryan was generally considered to be the best-known lecturer and public speaker of his time due to his wide travels and deep, commanding voice. He is also considered to be one of the first “celebrity politicians” and is regarded as one of the greatest orators in American history.
According to a story on the front page of the Dec. 1, 1915 edition of The Evergreen Courant, the 55-year-old Bryan “honored Evergreen with his distinguished presence” on Fri., Nov. 26, and delivered his famous speech, “The European War and Its Lessons for Us,” to a “large and thoroughly appreciative audience” at the Conecuh County Courthouse. Bryan was introduced by the Rev. W.T. Ellisor and then “for a full hour and a half, the great man held the closest attention of his audience.”
Courant editor George W. Salter Jr. reported that Bryan’s speech was about World War I, which America would not become directly involved in until April 1917, and that Bryan’s speech was “divided into three parts: first, the war as it is and its injury to neutrals; second, the false philosophy out of which the war has grown and the natural result of that false philosophy; and third, the way out, or the road to permanent peace, emphasizing the lessons which this country can draw from the conflict beyond the ocean.”
Salter noted that the crowd that assembled at the courthouse to listen to “The Great Commoner” was not as large as expected. “Early in the morning, a steady downpour of rain set in and continued until well up into the day, preventing many from coming to see and hear the great man” Salter reported. “The court room, however, was comfortably filled and everyone enjoyed the speech.”
According to The Courant, Bryan was expected to arrive in Evergreen on the No. 5 train on the morning of Nov. 26, and he was expected to proceed to Mobile on the No. 1 train at 1:45 p.m. that same afternoon. Before leaving on Nov. 26, Bryan made a “generous donation of $100 to the building fund of the (Evergreen City School) and “this of course makes every Evergreen citizen think more of the big-hearted Bryan.” (Adjusted for inflation, $100 in 1915 would amount to around $2,300 in today’s dollars.)
During his visit to Evergreen, Bryan was the guest of the Hon. J.F. Jones at the Wiggins House, “where many prominent citizens gathered to pay their respects to the distinguished guest,” Salter reported.
In the years after his visit to Evergreen, Bryan remained in the limelight and became involved in two hot-button, national issues. He was one of the leading proponents of Prohibition and he was heavily involved in the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee.
Five days after that trial ended, and almost 10 years after his noteworthy visit to Evergreen, Bryan passed away at the age of 65 while taking an afternoon nap at his home in Dayton, Tenn. He was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery.