The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Debate over teaching books by Black authors has roots in violent 1974 clash in West Virginia

A volunteer leads morning prayers at the Faith Gospel Tabernacle Elementary School in Kanawha County, W.Va., on April 24, 1975. The school, housed in a church basement, was one of a dozen private Christian schools that sprang up as makeshift alternatives to public schools as a result of Kanawha County’s textbook battle, which involved boycotts and bombings. (AP)
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The final days of the campaign for Virginia governor are turning to a surprising degree on Toni Morrison.

Republican Glenn Youngkin is making part of his closing argument with an ad featuring Laura Murphy, who in 2013 sought to ban Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” from Fairfax County Public Schools. Murphy’s son, who is now a lawyer for the Republican Party, claimed as a high school senior in an Advanced Placement English class that the book was “disgusting and gross” and gave him night terrors.

In the ad, Murphy contrasts Youngkin with his Democratic rival, Terry McAuliffe, who in his previous term as governor vetoed a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of reading books they considered objectionable. Youngkin, she says, “listens. He understands. Parents matter.”

If this line of attack represents an unlikely turn for the country’s highest-profile race in a time of global pandemic and economic upheaval, it is not new. The template for this political strategy — and for the nationwide debate over how race is taught in schools — was drawn up nearly half a century ago, in West Virginia’s Kanawha County.

The Kanawha County protests, which would lead to bombings and racist threats, were instigated by Alice Moore, a school board member, fundamentalist preacher’s wife and activist against sex education.

In June 1974, in accordance with new federal education guidelines that public schools include in their curriculums writings by and about people of color, the school board took under consideration a new set of textbooks for the district. Moore objected to language arts textbooks she claimed would teach students “ghetto dialect” instead of “standard American speech.” She opposed including, as an optional text for a high school Advanced Placement class, former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s prison memoir, “Soul on Ice.”

Other parents in Moore’s circle objected to works by Langston Hughes as “anti-Christian” and by James Baldwin as “anti-White.” White parents tried to enlist Black parents in the school district to join them, arguing that Black parents should not want such negative portrayals of their community taught to White students. Even an elementary school reading book, with an illustration of a White girl handing a bouquet of flowers to a Black boy, was the target of White parents’ ire.

In the fall of 1974, as the school board continued to consider the books, the protests escalated, sometimes turning violent. “Get the n------ out” was emblazoned on placards and as graffiti in Charleston. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross. School buildings were vandalized with Nazi insignia. At least three elementary schools were attacked with firebombs and molotov cocktails.

Although no one was injured by the after-hours attacks on schools, the ongoing violence terrorized the community. A school custodian was pushed down stairs. Late one night, assailants threw 15 sticks of dynamite into the Board of Education building, causing a blast powerful enough to “lift a three-ton air conditioning unit off its foundation on the roof,” a Charleston detective told the Charleston Daily Mail. The one employee in the building at the time survived.

Federal law enforcement joined the investigations, and, in 1975, the Rev. Marvin Horan, a fundamentalist Baptist minister, and three associates were convicted in federal court on several charges in connection with the bombings.

In the end, the school board adopted all but one of the textbooks, but the protesters had extracted a key concession: the board promised that future textbooks must “encourage loyalty to the United States,” “not encourage sedition or revolution against our government” and “not defame our nation’s founders or misrepresent the ideals and causes for which they sacrificed and struggled.”

Even as the residents of Kanawha County moved on, political activists based in Washington kept the controversy alive, using it to help build the “New Right” of religious conservatives and right-wing populists. The New Right magazine Conservative Digest continued to write about the protests as an inflection point that “may well have sounded the knell for compulsory public schooling” — hinting at the movement’s desired end game. James McKenna, a Heritage Foundation lawyer, told the New York Times in 1975 that “parents are worried that schools are turning into big, impersonal governmental bureaucracies that do not respond to pressure from the grassroots.”

Conservative activists in Washington continued to hold Alice Moore up as the ideal grass-roots parent. Paul Weyrich, a key architect of the New Right, included a discussion of Kanawha County in a speech to the Platform Committee at the 1976 Republican National Convention. Moore, he said, recognized that the school district was using textbooks “to denigrate their parental authority, to deride the values upon which this country has been built, to mock, sneer, vituperate.”

Then, as now, the battle lines were drawn after cataclysmic scandals rocking the Republican Party over actions by Republican presidents who helped stir the racist grievances of White voters. The Kanawha County protests unfolded in the shadow of congressional Watergate hearings and then Richard Nixon’s August 1974 resignation. Today’s conflicts have escalated since the failed Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — quite a turn of events, given that the Kanawha County protesters demanded that the school board pledge loyalty to the U.S. government.

Youngkin’s promise to listen to parents is a well-trodden path for Republicans — even ones like Youngkin (and Trump before him) who claim not to be politicians but do see an upside in politicizing issues of race in the classroom.

Sarah Posner is the author of “Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency, and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind.”