This is the 35th anniversary of
the most violent month of that struggle, which some call an early battle of the
ongoing Culture Wars.
Thousands of children stayed home from
school. Buildings were bombed. One man was shot. Miners went on strike in
sympathy with the textbook protesters.
Later this month, West Virginia Public
Radio will air the world premier of a new radio documentary: “The Great
As part of that, the Kanawha Valley
Historical and Preservation Society and documentary-maker Trey Kay gathered
together a panel to discuss the controversy at the Culture Center in Charleston, moderated by
Hoppy Kercheval of West Virginia Metronews.
It was the first time many of them had seen
each other in years.
Historical Society President Henry Battle
introduced the event with one ground rule:
“We are here to do history, not to reopen
old wounds or get in some final low blows,” he said.
Kay talked about being a 7th grader
from the upscale neighborhood of South Hills during the controversy, and his
experience listening to the participants decades later.
“In some ways, they are just as passionate
on this issue as 35 years ago, and in some ways, they have evolved and
mellowed,” Kay said.
Kay described how the controversy started, when
Kanawha County School Board member Alice Moore objects to non-standard English
in a textbook that’s before the board for approval.
Then, her husband pointed out she had
approved “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and became upset.
At the forum Tuesday, Moore said she never
planned for meant to go quietly to the board members and take a look at these
books, “even though I knew I could become a very famous person in Kanawha County by making them
public, and I could have a lot of political power, I didn’t want that.”
But someone leaked it to the media, she
said. That led then-superintendent Kenneth Underwood to call a public meeting,
and for Moore to start
publicizing what was in the books.
Underwood told the Culture Center crowd of about 100
of his frustration. He said he did not know what he could have done to defuse
“I was frustrated. My prime purpose was to
get kids in school. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know how, I didn’t know what.
“The only person I talked to directly who
could tell me what books were a little iffy was Alice (Moore). Everyone else
just said, get those damn books out of here, meaning all of them,” Underwood
Rev. Avis Hill became a leader in the
textbook strike. He said today’s society is a reflection of the battles fought
“Our schools are full of violence, guns,
drugs, alcohol, teachers abusing children. The fact is, as sad as it seems, the
chickens come home to roost. What they taught 35 years ago is happening in the
schools. You guys have destroyed a whole group of kids,” Hill said.
The Rev. Jim Lewis was on the other side of
the debate. He had just moved to Kanawha County when the textbook
strike broke out.
Lewis’s four children were in school at the
time and had textbooks removed from their classrooms. He said Episcopal clergy looked
“I saw nothing in those books that
indicated to me the rhetoric I was hearing about those books,” Lewis said.
Moore said one book featured
a destroyed classroom, and asked, “What do you think led this student to feel
he had to rebel in this way to destroy this classroom.”
“These kinds of things were designed to
drive a wedge between young people and their parents,” she said.
Charleston Gazette Editor Jim Haught was a
reporter at the time of the textbook strike. He wasn’t on the panel, but he
told them what he thought was the root of the protests.
“I remember reading these books, looking
for the obscenity and the indecency and the filth, and to my great disappointment,
I could never find any. Then I began to realize the culture war was coming on,”
“And the books had the writings of black
militants and women’s rights advocates and gays, people who were not part of
the Appalachian conformist mentality,” he said.
Connie Marshner, on the other hand, said
the protests were the start of the school choice movement.
In 1974, she worked for the Heritage
Foundation, which at the time had only five employees. She came to West Virginia to advise the
strikers, and later wrote a book about the controversy.
Marshner sees parallels between the
strikers of 1974 and today’s angry town hall meetings.
“What it was about was the same thing that some of the controversy we saw this
summer was about,” she said.
She talked about a new survey from Republican
pollster Frank Lunz, in which 72 percent agreed with the statement: “I’m mad as
hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
“There is a very deep social/cultural divide
and malaise in this country,” Marshner said.
Calvin Skaggs sees parallels between 1974
and today, too. Skaggs made the documentary, “With God on Our Side: The Rise of
the Religious Right,” which featured the textbook strike.
“These textbooks were introducing public
school students to ideas about God and sex and society which their parents were
not going to like. That’s how it got started. It rippled until it was about
everything,” Skaggs said.
“If this textbook controversy had happened
20 years earlier, the community would have worked it out. There was a
polarization beginning then that has absolutely infected our country now and
frankly, frightens me,” he said.
That polarization was in evidence last
night, as people on both sides re-argued their talking points from this early
battle of the culture war.
But this time, the only bombs that were
thrown were verbal ones. Documentary-maker Trey Kay counted that as a success.
To hear “The Great Textbook War,” tune in Thursday,
October 22 and October 29 at 9 p.m. on West Virginia