The Great Textbook War Begins
On June 27, 1974, the school board of Kanawha County met and formally approved new textbooks which many considered to be anti-Christian. About 1,000 anti-textbook protesters demonstrated outside the board office. Despite the protest, the board voted to purchase the books—with the exception of eight of the most controversial high school works. The vote was three to two.
Thus began the nation’s most violent protest over public school textbooks. In previous years, the textbook adoption process had been fairly routine, but the atmosphere was different in 1974. The State Board of Education had recently mandated that books used in public schools reflect more multiracial themes. In response, the proposed language arts books featured a diverse range of authors including works by Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, black rights advocate Eldridge Cleaver, and Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry. Other books included Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Crucible by Arthur Miller and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The textbook supporters generally believed that in an increasingly global society with interconnected economies, students needed to have access to the languages and ideas of diverse cultures. This included an obligation to challenge existing belief systems as well as to question the U.S. government. This concept was especially powerful in 1974, when the Watergate scandal was about to bring down a presidency.
Twenty-seven ministers publicly denounced the books. Ten other ministers and the West Virginia Council of Churches announced support for the books. In general, those who opposed the books were from evangelical churches in rural parts of the county; the ministers who supported the books mostly represented churches located in the city of Charleston, the county seat.
The response was swift. Ministers Ezra Graley, Avis Hill, Charles Quigley and Marvin Horan galvanized the anti-textbook forces and called for a school boycott; 12,000 people signed petitions to keep the books out of schools. The protests were not limited to the religious community. Business leaders began taking sides in the debate too. By late summer, the battle lines were drawn.
On Labor Day, the Rev. Marvin Horan led a rally attended by about 8,000 outraged demonstrators. They labeled their group Concerned Citizens. Horan urged his followers to keep their children out of school until the board reversed its decision.
When schools opened the next day, a large number of students failed to show up. Disputes raged over the numbers. Anti-textbook forces said as many as half the school children in Kanawha County were kept home to protest the books. The school system reported that about 20 percent of students were absent on that first day. Textbook supporters said many students were held out for their own safety, not over objections to the books.
Protesters who opposed the books carried signs and formed picket lines at schools and businesses across the county. One demonstration was at Heck’s Department Store, whose president was pro-book board member Russell Isaacs. One by one, businesses shut down rather than violate picket lines. The protesters even managed to stop Kanawha County’s bus service.
The controversy took a crucial turn on September 4 when some 3,500 coal miners went on strike to protest the textbooks—directly violating orders from the United Mine Workers labor union. The explanation for this unauthorized strike still remains unclear. Some miners simply refused to cross the picket lines that had formed at area mines. Others did not approve of their children reading what they perceived as left-wing books. The miners—experienced in organized demonstrations—helped escalate the protests to another level.
On September 12, in an attempt to calm tensions, the board pulled all the adopted books from schools temporarily and appointed a committee of 18 citizens to review each book. But the compromise failed to satisfy either side. Anti-textbook protesters demanded permanent removal of the books and the firing of school superintendent Kenneth Underwood. Infuriated by what they perceived as censorship, 1,200 students at George Washington High School walked out of school and insisted the books be returned. A leader of the student walkout called Episcopal priest Jim Lewis to ask for assistance. Lewis, a relative newcomer to Charleston, quickly became the most vocal leader of the pro-textbook forces.
That same day, an anti-textbook protestor was shot and wounded. The shooter was wrestled to the ground by demonstrators and beaten severely. After the incident, the county appealed to the state for law enforcement assistance, but Governor Arch Moore was hesitant to dispatch state police to tackle what he considered a local problem. In response, the Kanawha County sheriff announced he could no longer control the increasingly violent situation.
With the community descending into chaos, school superintendent Kenneth Underwood closed the county schools for four days. He said the closing was needed to protect students and employees. Over the next few weeks, the board-appointed citizen committee reviewed all of the books. On September 25, the committee ended up approving the books by an 11-7 margin. Frustrated by the process, the committee’s anti-textbook members split away, conducted their own review, and released a 500-plus-page document that rejected 184 of the adopted books.
The ongoing controversy soon captured the attention of national media. All the major national news outlets—ABC, CBS, and NBC—rushed to Kanawha County to cover the conflict, and the threats and violence continued.
During a rally, the Rev. Charles Quigley prayed for God to kill the three board members who had approved the books. The Ku Klux Klan sent at least three national leaders to Charleston in support of the anti-textbook cause. Protesters attacked a CBS reporter and his film crew, and cars were set on fire. The anti-textbook protestors were threatened too. School board member Alice Moore had to be protected by bodyguards around the clock because of death threats. Gunshots were fired near her house.
Angered by a lack of progress, some of the more radical anti-textbook protesters decided to shut down schools by force. On the night of October 9, 1974, dynamite was thrown through the windows of one elementary school. Another school was firebombed and dynamited. Two nights later, protesters threw Molotov cocktails into a school; another school was firebombed a few nights after that. Then, 15 sticks of dynamite were exploded near a gas meter at the board of education office just after a meeting had adjourned. No injuries resulted from any of these incidents, but the level of violence and destruction shook the community.
On November 8, 1974, the Kanawha County School Board met to determine the final fate of the books. Throughout the controversy, the anti-textbook side complained that public meetings had been held in the small board of education auditorium. Responding to these concerns, the board moved the November 8 meeting to the Charleston Civic Center, which could accommodate thousands of people.
But fewer than 100 people showed up. The recent violence had begun to hurt the anti-textbook cause. Fearing that the meeting would incite more violent behavior, anti-textbook leaders urged their supporters to avoid the Civic Center. Before a sparse crowd, the board voted to return the books to schools.
Although the textbooks had officially been reinstated, the anti-textbook camp was not giving up. The day after the November 8 meeting, they marched again, while their leader, the Rev. Avis Hill, echoed Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones’s sentiments: “We have just begun to fight.” And the violence continued. In one incident, snipers fired on state police cruisers that were accompanying school buses. In another, a protestor fired a shotgun at a school bus. There were no serious injuries, but the resentment and distrust within the community lingered.
And while the school board vote appeared to be a victory for the pro-textbook forces, the final outcome was not as clear-cut. Conservative school board member Alice Moore introduced a series of guidelines for selecting future textbooks. “Textbooks for use in the classrooms of Kanawha County shall recognize the sanctity of the home,” was one of the guidelines. Also: “Textbooks must encourage loyalty to the United States.” And, “Textbooks must not defame our nation’s founders or misrepresent the ideals and causes for which they struggled and sacrificed.”
The school board approved all of Moore’s guidelines. And in the end, many of the more controversial books approved in 1974 were placed only in school libraries and required a signed parent permission slip to be checked out. Principals were given veto power over individual books. The result was that the most controversial books never entered schools in the rural areas of the county that had objected most stridently.