To find tensions in American society, look at K-12 textbooks. Not in them, but in the debates they bring to the fore. In the wake of the Donald Trump victory and right-wing populism, the protests in Kanawha County, West Virginia from 1974-5 are worth learning about.
At the Kanawha County Board of Education meeting on June 27, 1974, Board Member Alice Moore brought a petition signed by 12,000 residents of Kanawha County. It called for the schools to ban any book that undermined:
- The family, which comes from the marriage of one man and one woman.
- Belief in:
- The American political system.
- “The history of America as ‘the record of one of the noblest civilizations that has existed.’”
- “Study of the traditional rules of grammar….”1
This petition was sparked by Alice Moore’s claims that new English Language Arts (ELA) textbooks were antithetical to religion, patriotism, and decency. Excerpts from Eldridge Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice and the Autobiography of Malcolm X angered protesters, who loved their country but distrusted their government and its curriculum reforms.
At the June 27 Board meeting, hundreds of people stood outside in the rain because the building was at capacity. They wanted to hear the final vote of what was normally an uneventful process.
Against the protesters’ objections, most of the ELA books under discussion were approved for use in the schools. Moore and the other signatories lost the battle. Trouble soon followed.
On the first day of school that fall, about 9,000 of the 45,000 students in Kanawha County schools (mostly the eastern, rural half) did not attend. Protesters set pickets at mines and factories. Miners in West Virginia do not cross picket lines. By the next day, all the mines in Kanawha had shut down.2
The protests received national media attention because they were violent. From September 1974 to the following spring, school buses were shot at on their way to pick up students. Midway Elementary and a few other schools were bombed, as was the Board of Education building.3 A court convicted Reverend Marvin Horan, one of the on-the-ground organizers of protesters, of conspiracy to bomb schools. At least one protester was shot. Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Underwood was beaten up in a board meeting-turned-brawl about the books.
The participants in the Kanawha County anti-textbook movement had various motives for taking part, and they expressed their discontent through different means. For example, Board Member Alice Moore sparked the controversy, but was not a protester. She did not march, stand on a picket line, or talk to rural coal communities. She was embarrassed by those kinds of things. She spoke to churches in the middle-class west end of Charleston, to women’s groups and luncheons, and to the press.
Moore was more architect than activist; she planned her campaign against the Language Arts textbooks before she had read them. Having read an article about Mel and Norma Gabler, textbook censors in Texas, Moore got in touch with them after seeing that the board would be buying books. “They told me some of the things to watch for,” she told US News and World Report later in 1974.4
Most of the protesters were working, religious people who feared that their children were being brainwashed, losing their morality, or receiving a sub-par education. They heard from preachers unified in opposition to the books and to the federal government, but at odds with one another on the direction of the movement.
Some supporters of the textbooks thought the protesters feared the books for including non-white voices and messages about multi-culturalism. Alice Moore opposed any charge of racism, though her first target in the new books were lessons in “dialectology.” Students should learn standard English, not “ghetto dialect;” the “NAACP opposes this approach,” she said.5
Local chemical company owner Elmer Fike, author of the independent publication Elmer’s Tune, represented views of the suburban, conservative middle-class of Kanawha County. He explained how the conflict was not about race:
Perhaps Fike’s conciliatory mission was undercut by signs calling to “burn [n*****] books,” or the letter from the Vigilante Committee for Decency in Our School’s explaining that “‘as recently as 50 years ago’ members of the school board ‘would have been lynched for less than their present activities.’”7
Moore, Fike, and other mainstream social conservatives positioned the conflict as between bureaucracy trying to impose a radical agenda and those striving to keep traditional values. But others had explicitly racist reasons to support the movement.
The KKK rallied on the state Capitol steps after a resurgence from the protests; letters to the editor about international Jewish communist conspiracies proliferated in area newspapers. A key producer of flyers and resources for protesters about the protest was George Dietz, owner of a Kanawha County John Birch Society bookstore, who by the 1980s was the most prolific neo-Nazi writer in the United States. Extremist, race-war-inciting groups did not represent the majority of protesters, but these groups mobilized through the controversy.
Though less vocal, textbook proponents found outlets to protest as well. In response to the numerous anti-text school boycotts, 1200 students from George Washington High School in Charleston walked-out to protest censorship.8 The Charleston NAACP said that they did not support the protesters’ violence, the lack of black representation on the school board and textbook review committee, and the “audacity and nerve of some white people” like Alice Moore, Elmer Fike, and Reverend Marvin Horan to say they represented the views of black people.9
By the following April, most of the protests had died down, and most of the books were being used in the classroom. Conservative organizers like the Heritage Foundation’s James McKenna and Connie Marshner fondly remember traveling to Charleston to support the protesters with advice and publicity-generation. Iconic, conservative women like Phyllis Schlafly and Connie Marshner drew on Alice Moore’s presentation as a “concerned mother.”
The protesters did not accomplish their stated goal to remove the books from the schools. Looking at the protest’s place in a long-term political context, however, shows that maybe that does not matter. In the following years, social conservatives won more seats on the Kanawha County school board. Groups like the Heritage Foundation pointed to Charleston as an example of grassroots conservative activism and resistance. By the time of the Tea Party, the controversy was an early node in the self-told genealogy of the religious right.
As social progressives prepare for their own era of resistance, the Kanawha County controversy may serve as reminder that disruption, protest, and boycotts are tools used on both the left and the right.
There is much more to draw on about the controversy. For interviews with participants and key figures in the controversy, listen to the radio documentary “The Great Textbook War”, by Trey Kay, made in 2009 in the wake of the Tea Party movement.
To go deeper, see Carol Ann Mason’s Reading Appalachia From Left to Right: Conservatives and the 1974 Kanawha County Textbook Controversy (2009) (on which this post relies heavily on for analysis). Mason pays more attention to the gendered presentation of Alice Moore, the role of race in the controversy, and the activity of extremist right groups involved. Mason also responded to “The Great Textbook War.”
Another recent book with significant research into the Kanawha textbook controversy, in a larger context of conservative education reformers, is Adam Laats’s The Other School Reformers (2015).
- Joe Kincheloe, “Alice Moore and the Kanawha County Textbook Controversy,” Journal of Thought 15.1 (1980): 25. Return to text.
- Justin J. McHenry, “Silent, No More: The 1974 Kanawha County Textbook Controversy and the Rise of Conservatism in America,” (Master’s thesis, West Virginia University, 2006), 61. McHenry also points out that the United Mine Workers were likely to strike in November. The spirit of protest was in the air. In West Virginia and Central Appalachia, miner strikes for black-lung benefits and anti-strip mining actions were happening across the state.Return to text.
- McHenry, “Silent, No More,” 9-10. Return to text.
- Alice Moore to US News and World Report in Carol Ann Mason, Reading Appalachia from Left to Right (Cornell University Press, 2009), 103. Return to text.
- Mason, 47. Return to text.
- Elmer Fike in McHenry, 63. Return to text.
- Mason, 52. Return to text.
- “The Kanawha County Textbook Controversy,” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. Return to text.
- Mason, 48. Black students in West Virginia high schools near Charleston had protested in the previous few years against exclusion from student organizations and school functions, expulsions for “modes of black dress [and] hair styles],” and for courses on black history, culture, and literature. McHenry, 61. Return to text.