Kanawha County Textbook Controversy

The Kanawha County textbook controversy was a violent school control struggle in the 20th century United States. It led to the largest protests ever in the history of Kanawha County, West Virginia, the shooting of one bystander, and extended school closings.

School board ruling
On 12 March 1974, the English Language Arts Textbook Committee of Kanawha County, West Virginia recommended 325 books and textbooks to the school board for use in Kanawha elementary schools. Among these were titles such as America Reads and Language of Man. These textbooks were part of a new state curriculum that included for the first time the concepts of multiculturalism and egalitarianism in textbook writing. Most school board members saw no reason to question the state's decision, but board member Alice Moore was concerned by the term dialectology, which implied the teaching of Appalachian English and African American Vernacular English as "equally correct" dialects, when she believed they could impede access to higher education and careers. The school board moved to review the books before sending them to schools. Upon receiving the review copies, Moore was disturbed by a quote from the Autobiography of Malcolm X in which he referred to Christians as "brainwashed"; she requested and received all 300 textbooks, and claimed she found quotes from Allen Ginsberg, Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex, and convicted Black Panthers such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson.

Moore telephoned Mel Gabler, a textbook evaluator who ran Educational Research Analysts, a conservative Christian non-profit organization in Texas. Gabler in return sent pamphlets and outlines of some of the ways in which the content of the books allegedly conflicted with Christian values, moral uprightness, and patriotism. Moore, the wife of a fundamentalist minister, reported her concerns to the board and local newspapers. On 23 May, Moore came to the school board meeting and charged that the textbooks were "filthy, disgusting trash, unpatriotic and unduly favoring blacks". She argued that the textbooks taught children to disrespect the beliefs of their parents and taught a brand of relativism that did not belong in West Virginia. She generated much publicity for her cause and won the support of the local Parent-Teacher Association and the Magic Valley Mother's Club. However, the West Virginia Council of Churches supported the books.

On 27 June the school board met again, with over 1,000 local residents observing, and voted to approve the books after a three-hour debate over the merits of teaching a liberal curriculum. This was met with much consternation from conservative groups. Reverend Marvin Horan called for a boycott of all public schools. Fliers were distributed around the county which purported to demonstrate the lewdness of the books, but were actually quotations from completely different books like Sexual Politics that were not part of the curriculum. When parents could not find these passages in their children's own textbooks, they accused the teachers of hiding the real books from them.

Boycott and violence
The boycott escalated quickly. Nine thousand out of 45,000 elementary school students in the county were kept home from school. Thousands of miners, bus drivers, and trucking workers joined in the boycott. The Department of Education called for a compromise, but Reverend Horan denounced them, demanding that the boycott continue until the books were permanently removed and the supporting members of the school board fired. Bombs were planted at an elementary school and a school board building; another elementary school was dynamited, school buses were attacked with shotguns, and the homes of children who continued to attend school during the boycott were stoned. Alice Moore herself fled town during this time.

Reverend Charles Quigley asked Christians to "pray that God will kill the giants who have mocked and made fun of dumb fundamentalists", leading one student to point out, "They're shooting people because they don't want to see violence in books." Kanawha's sheriff asked for state troopers to be sent in, but West Virginia Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. denied the request. Schools were closed several times to avoid further violence.

In April 1975 Marvin Horan was sentenced to three years in prison on charges related to the bombings, effectively ending the demonstration. In the fall of 1975, the school board restored the full line of books that they had approved before to all county schools.

Joe L. Kincheloe in Understanding the New Right and its Impact on Education (1983) made the argument that the actions of Kanawha County School Board Member Alice Moore and her fundamentalist Christian allies in the 1974 controversy represented a defining moment in not only educational politics but American political history as well. Arguing that the Kanawha County textbook controversy was the first major victory for conservative evangelical Christians in the politically polarizing cultural debates that emerged from the 1960s social unrest, Kincheloe wrote in the early 1980s and in subsequent work that the victory was a key moment in what he and Aaron Gresson (2004) have labeled the right-wing recovery movement. This movement has profoundly shaped subsequent American education and electoral politics, as proponents have attempted to regain the power they perceived themselves to have lost in the 1960s cultural movements. In the case of the Kanawha County controversy, Moore and her supporters perceived that progressive secularists were undermining Christian values in their embrace of moral relativism, atheism and sexual experimentation (amongst other things) in educational textbooks a la 1960s liberationism. Thus, Kincheloe's interpretation of the West Virginia controversy assumes a historical significance lost on many of those who have written about it in the decades that followed.

After the textbook controversy, a network of private Christian schools was founded across the state, teaching Christian principles in place of the concepts at the center of the controversy.