Kanawha County Board of Education and the 1974 Textbook Controversy
When the Kanawha County Board of Education introduced new textbooks in June 1974, few could have predicted the resulting controversy. The decision was viewed as a routine matter by each board members until a handful of residents spoke in opposition to the inclusion of information related to the history, culture, and perspectives of minorities. School board member Alice Moore took up the cause of those who were concerned by the new books and her actions and those of others inspired newspaper ads and protests against the new books. Within weeks, some of the more militant opponents of the new books were engaged in physical fights with the defenders of the books. Community members marched with Confederate flags and members of the Ku Klux Klan descended upon the city threatening violence to anyone who opposed them. The violent rhetoric spawned death threats, shootings, and even the bombing of school buildings. A year of tension, violence, and arrests including attacks on school buses carrying children, attacks on the police, and even the bombing of several elementary schools and the Board of Education building. The event is known today as the "Kanawha County Textbook Controversy," a name that may fail to adequately describe the one-sided nature of the anti-intellectualism and racism that led to acts of violence against educators and schools.
Backstory and Context
"There's apparently no way that we can have law and order. Mobs are ruling and we're extremely afraid somebody will be hurt."1
Less than 3 months after protests began over the adoption of new textbooks in Kanawha County, these were the words used by county school superintendent Kenneth Underwood to explain why schools were to be closed for four days in September of 1974.
In a school board meeting of April that year, the vote to adopt these new textbooks--which included more multiracial content, had passed unanimously due to the urgency of securing state funding. Upon discovering excerpts from scholars such as Sigmund Freud, the inclusion of scientific evidence to support the theory of evolution, and selections from books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, some Charleston residents and educators wished to return to older textbooks that had been produced in the 1950s. Board member Alice Moore strongly objected to the content of the new textbooks and demanded they be removed. According to Moore, the new books were "filthy, disgusting trash." She was particularly concerned that the new books presented a view of American history and culture that "unduly favor[ed] blacks."
Moore was overruled by her peers, who believed that the books were appropriate and offered a needed corrective to some of the older books that presented slavery as a benign institution. Moore decided to take her message directly to constituents. Campaigning in evangelical churches and rural communities soon framed the issue as one of conservative, traditional values against liberal intellectual urban elites. Despite the presence of a thousand protesters outside the school board meeting in June, the board continued to support the new books. In return, Moore and her supporters vowed to increase pressure on the board to accept their point of view by any means necessary. 2
By July, protests against the book were being held around the city and county. The textbooks were condemned by 27 ministers, while ten ministers who reviewed the books took the side of the educators and administrators. Marvin Horan, a self-taught Christian fundamentalist preacher, soon emerged as one of the most outspoken voices calling for the removal of the textbooks. With Horan and others taking control of the movement, protesters began calling for the books to be set on fire. Others vowed to "shut down the schools" unless the school board replaced the books. Business owners who supported the school board and teachers were picketed. Protesters even blocked roads to prevent school buses from taking children to school.
By early September, more than 3,000 West Virginia miners in surrounding coal field joined the protests. An agreement by the school board to remove the books from schools until further review failed to placate the picketers as the original concerns about the content of the books exploded into an angry protest against the perception that America was changing in ways that might lessen the authority of conservative Christians and create advantages for minorities. School children typically sided with their parents, but when the announcement was made that books were to be removed, 1,200 students walked out of George Washington High School and demanded the right to be taught with current textbooks that reflected the most current scientific theories and included diverse perspectives.
"So began a season of marches, parades, rallies, scuffles, shootings, fistfights, strikes, picketing, boycotts, debates, arrests, lawsuits, court orders and angry sermons. One preacher prayed fervently and publicly for the death of three school board members."4In October 1974, a small number of the anti-textbook coalition decided to commit acts of violence against property in hopes of intimidating their opponents. Against the wished of many who agreed with their position, a small number of anti-textbook protesters conspired to bomb several of the county's public schools with dynamite and molotov cocktails. Fifteen sticks of dynamite were detonated near the gas meter at the Board of Education offices. Despite the damage to the building and potential devastation of the attack, no one was injured.
On Nov. 8th, the School Board held its usual meeting--this time in the Charleston Civic Center due to complaints that its normal venue (in the Board of Education offices) was too small to accommodate concerned citizens. Despite the large venue, fewer than 100 constituents showed up due to fears of violence by anti-textbook forces. The school board, having now reviewed the books for two months, voted to reinstate most of the books in the county schools. In hopes of placating the protesters without risking the education of the county's children, the board agreed to require parental permission to check out some of the books the school had acquired for their libraries.
In response, anti-textbook protesters escalated their violence by attacking people instead of only attacking property. After threatening to attack school bus drivers, militant anti-textbook protesters fired weapons at police officers who had been ordered to escort school buses to protect the drivers and children. One protesters even fired shots directly at a school bus, but no one was harmed.
Fears of escalating violence led to another meeting and a vote to approve guidelines set forward by Alice Moore prohibiting texts that "pry into home life; teach racial hatred; undermine religious, ethnic, or racial groups; encourage sedition; insult patriotism; teach that an alien form of government is acceptable; use the name of God in vain; or use offensive language."3
Dismayed that the new books continued to be used, protests continued throughout the fall and winter. By the end of the year, members of the Ku Klux Klan joined the protesters and burned crosses in Charleston in an effort to strike fear in the hearts of those who supported the books. In January 1975 Reverend Horan, one of the most prominent anti-textbook leaders, was indicted with five other men for conspiracy to bomb several schools and school buses. Horan was considered a martyr by many in the anti-textbook cause, but his sentencing in April 1975 to three years in prison effectively ended the majority of protesting.
The textbooks remained in circulation, but principals of individual schools were given power of veto their use in classes and even ban them from school libraries. As a result, many of the rural schools where protest had been most vehement did not accept the new material. A sharp rise in Christian private schools also resulted from the withdrawing of many students from the public school system.
Some scholars have pointed to the Textbook Controversy as the opening shots in the late-20th century "culture wars" that have defined the current secular left and religious right sociopolitical spectrum.6
2. Kay, Trey. Books and Beliefs: The Kanawha County Textbook Wars. American RadioWorks. October 16, 2015. Accessed September 01, 2017. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/textbooks/books_and_beliefs.html.
3. The Kanawha County Textbook Controversy. The West Virginia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 01, 2017. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/print/ExhibitHall/13. Section 4, 9
4. Wooten, James T.. "Bomb Indictments Latest Battle in Textbook War." New York Times(New York), January 27, 1975. http://www.nytimes.com/1975/01/27/archives/bomb-indictments-latest-battle-in-textbook-war.html?mcubz...
5. Warren, Donald I.. The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation. Notre Dame, Indiana. University of Notre Dame Press, 1976.
6. Kincheloe, Joe L.. Understanding the New Right and Its Impact on Education. Bloomington, Indiana. Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1983. 7-15
7. Women from Boston and Charleston, West Virginia, holding signs, demonstrating against busing and textbooks, Washington, D.C. Boston Massachusetts Washington D.C, 1975. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2011646489/.