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The Kanawha County Textbook Controversy

There are 11 sections in this Exhibit


In summer and fall 1974, the most violent protest over public school textbooks in our nation’s history erupted in Kanawha County, West Virginia. The disagreement stemmed from the selection of textbooks for the 46,000 students attending the county’s 124 public schools. By the time the dispute died down in early 1975, the county had been split into separate camps. In addition, various acts of violence had attracted negative national attention to West Virginia. Today, the textbook controversy is recognized as an important moment in the escalating culture wars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Section 1: A Battle of Cultures

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The controversy began in April 1974, when the five-member Kanawha County Board of Education voted unanimously to adopt 325 recommended texts and supplementary books in language arts — some of which reflected more multiracial topics than those used in the past. After the vote, conservative board member Alice Moore (pictured) challenged some of the content, objecting to abuses of the English language and to what she considered anti-Christian and un-American themes. In particular, she was outraged at passages from The Autobiography of Malcolm X — one of the adopted books. Moore (pictured here at a June 1974 meeting) became a leader of the anti-textbook forces.

Section 2: The Battle Moves to the Churches

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Purchase of the books was delayed until a consensus could be reached, and Moore’s stance sparked an anti-textbook campaign. During July and August, the region split into two camps, with anti-textbook forces hailing predominately from the rural eastern end of the county and textbook supporters residing primarily in Charleston and other urban areas. Churches and ministers became actively involved in the movement. Some of the leading ministers on the protest side included Ezra Graley and Marvin Horan. Despite petitions bearing 12,000 signatures and public condemnation of the books by 27 ministers and others on the grounds of immorality and indecency, the board voted 3-2 at the June meeting to accept most of the books. In this image, Graley and Horan (light-colored jackets) march on either side of the Rev. Carl McIntire, a national leader of the conservative movement.

Section 3: Support for the Books

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Although less visible in public, many residents of Kanawha County supported the new textbooks. In particular, many teachers felt that important decisions about classroom instruction—namely curriculum development and textbook selection—should be left in the hands of educators. One of the most strident textbook supporters was the Rev. Jim Lewis (pictured) of Charleston’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. He became the public face of the pro-textbook side.

Section 4: “Shut down the schools!”

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During August, the ministers who wanted the books removed launched a campaign to “shut down the schools.” When the school year began on September 3, attendance in Kanawha County was down at least 20 percent as many parents kept their children home either in objection to the books or to protect their children from potential violence. Protesters formed picket lines at many businesses and schools.

Section 5: The Miners Walk Out

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Events unfolded rapidly during the first week of September. In a show of support for the protesters, 3,500 miners staged an unauthorized wildcat strike. The strike spread rapidly, shutting down numerous mines in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The miners — well experienced in organized demonstrations — took control of many picket lines and helped escalate the protests to another level.

Section 6: Students Take a Stand

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In an attempt to calm tensions, school superintendent Kenneth Underwood shut down schools for several days. On September 12, the board temporarily pulled all the adopted books from schools and appointed a committee of 18 citizens to review each book. The compromise, however, failed to satisfy either side, as textbook protesters continued to keep their children out of school. Infuriated by what they perceived as censorship, 1,200 George Washington High School students shut down their own school by walking out in protest and insisting that the books be returned.

Section 7: Violence

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Kanawha County became the focus of national media attention as violence escalated. In October, angered by a lack of progress, some of the more radical anti-textbook protestors decided to shut down schools by force, including Midway Elementary (shown here). Several schools were vandalized with dynamite and Molotov cocktails. In a narrowly diverted disaster, 15 sticks of dynamite were exploded near a gas meter at the Board of Education offices shortly after the board meeting had adjourned. Fortunately, no injuries resulted from any of these incidents.

Section 8: Compromise and More Frustration

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The protests reached a climax at a November 8 meeting, which was held at the Charleston Civic Center to accommodate thousands of participants. In the end, however, fewer than 100 people attended the meeting due to concerns over potential violence. At this meeting, the board reinstated the books by a 3-2 vote; although, some of the more controversial books were placed only in school libraries and required a signed parent permission slip to be checked out.

Section 9: Alice Moore’s Guidelines

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Several weeks after the board meeting, the protesters won a victory when the board adopted Moore’s proposed guidelines for selecting future textbooks. These guidelines barred 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. As a result of her efforts, Moore became an iconic figure to the Religious Right.

Section 10: The End of the Controversy

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Protests continued into 1975, fueled by the involvement of extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The protests and violence ostensibly came to an end with the trial and sentencing of Rev. Marvin Horan (shown here behind KKK grand kleagle Dale Reusch during a rally at the West Virginia State Capitol) for plotting the bombing of two schools.

Section 11: The Rise of the Religious Right

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While the protests ended, the controversy is now seen as a pivotal event in the rise of the religious right in America. One protester later claimed that the textbook controversy was the “shot heard ’round the world” in igniting the culture wars of the late 20th century.