Clarence Darrow, the legendary defense attorney, always thought of himself as a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist. His answer to the questions: Does man have free will? Is there life after death? Is the human race getting anywhere? was always a resounding no! Darrow viewed history as a kind of treadmill, each generation hanging on to the same illusions, mouthing the same inanities, and repeating the same dumb mistakes as the ones before it.

There is much in “Clarence Darrow: Legacy & Language,” at the Prairie Avenue Gallery, to justify his gloomy assessment. The 150 pieces of Darrow memorabilia–photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and even a 1931 videotape of Darrow discussing criminal justice–reveal how little the world has changed since the 20th century was in its adolescence:

Darrow struggles against the public outcry for the execution of a 17-year-old murderer. If you’re old enough to kill, argue the capital-punishment advocates, you’re old enough to go to the chair.

Darrow defends a group of leftists who paraded the Communist flag next to the Stars and Stripes. The patriots argue that disrespect for Old Glory deserves prison.

In the famous Scopes trial, Darrow defends a teacher’s right to propound the theory of evolution, even though it contradicts the Bible’s literal meaning. The fundamentalists insist that anything threatening to belief must be purged, and the troublemaker punished.

“Look around,” says Anita Weinberg, exhibit curator. “Every plea Darrow ever made is just as relevant today as it was then.”

This is not the sort of exhibit for the casual browser. It requires thought, reflection, and a good bit of reading. But for anyone willing to take the time, it provides a marvelous view of society’s penchant for narrowness, prejudice, and recrimination.

Yet strangely enough, this exhibit tends to leave one in a somewhat hopeful, if not euphoric, state of mind–Darrow, despite his pretensions, was a miserable failure as a pessimist. He was a decidedly complex man, whose crust of cynicism apparently hid a heart full of idealism. And that paradox may help explain the recurring public interest in the old curmudgeon, who died in Chicago 52 years ago at the age of 80.

In the midst of legal battle, especially when a human life was on the line, Darrow would rise to the heights of eloquence, appealing to humanity’s better nature and frequently leaving spectators, juries, and even judges in tears. If he was really such a pessimist, it is difficult to explain the powerful declarations he was able to make–many of them prominently featured in the exhibit:

“I may hate the sin but never the sinner.”

“There is always one man to state the case for freedom. That’s all we need, one.”

“I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men.”

One time, as Darrow was eloquently expounding his conviction that life was not worth living, someone asked him how he could hold that position and yet go to such lengths to save human lives. The great man paused a moment, then said, “Because my emotions haven’t caught up with my intellect!”

The current exhibit, the first on Darrow in Chicago since 1957, is the joint creation of three women: Anita Weinberg, a Chicago attorney whose parents, Arthur and Lila Weinberg, authored several books on Darrow, including Attorney for the Damned; Julie Anixter, vice president of the Clarence Darrow Community Center; and Joy Darrow, a grandniece of Darrow’s and owner of the building that houses the Prairie Avenue Gallery. The Darrow center, located in the Leclaire Courts public-housing complex, is in the midst of a fund-raising effort that will culminate March 31 with a dinner honoring Vince Lane, chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. Weinberg notes that the center, in the spirit of Darrow himself, is vigorously promoting the rights of the underprivileged–it launched the first successful tenant-management program in Chicago public housing.

“Clarence Darrow: Legacy & Language” will show through March 18–it will close just after the day of Darrow’s death, March 13, when his admirers gather annually at the Clarence Darrow footbridge in Jackson Park to deliver speeches and throw a wreath into the water in his honor.

Hours at the Prairie Avenue Gallery, 1900 S. Prairie Ave., are Friday through Sunday from 1 to 5 and by appointment. Admission is free. Call 842-4523 for information.