Conservative school boards have banned prizewinning books like “Maus” and “The Bluest Eye.” Activists have targeted a children’s book because it mentions that mating sea horses “twist their tails together and twirl gently around.” Some lawmakers have even demanded that offensive schoolbooks be burned.
These tactics — extreme as they are — are only the latest in a century-long conservative effort. Since the 1920s, conservative boycotters have pledged that no tactic is too extreme to keep children safe from school curriculum. One example from the 1970s, where protesters boycotted public schools in Kanawha County, W.Va., reveals how these efforts have long since been driven by a pair of assumptions: first, that the mere exposure to certain ideas poses a dire threat to children and second, that conservative activists have the right to impose their vision of safety on the rest of society.
The explosive Kanawha County school war seemed to come out of nowhere. At a calm, quiet school board meeting on April 11, 1974, the Kanawha County board heard about the new literature textbook series adopted by the state of West Virginia. The new books — part of the Interaction series edited by James Moffett — reflected a new push for inclusion of “multiethnic content.” Instead of only White male authors, the books presented in this series included a range of voices — from militant Black writers such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson to nontraditional poets such as E.E. Cummings, as well as noncanonical pop writers such as daredevil Evel Knievel.
The school board seemed ready to accept the new books as a matter of course, until one new member spoke up. Alice Moore was new to Kanawha County, but she was an experienced conservative activist who was plugged into national antiabortion and anti-multiculturalism networks. She raised a concern about the use of “dialectology” — nonstandard English — and what she saw as the anti-American tone of the new books.
Although Moore was outvoted on the board, her concerns sparked outrage among right-leaning members of the local community. The next school board meetings were mobbed. Speakers who opposed the new books, including local pastors and members of activist parent groups, tried to make their case. One parent warned that poems like cummings’s “i like my body when it is with your” encouraged children to engage in dangerous sexual experimentation. Protesters believed other selections forced the “language of the ghetto” on White children, using — as many speakers complained — language that was racist because it was anti-White. Overall, conservative parents and pastors were certain that exposure to these books would cause immediate, irrevocable harm to vulnerable children. The books’ tone, as one activist put it, was “negative, racist, impulsive, and in some cases right-down vulgar.”
In an attempt to defend the books during one school board meeting, an English teacher explained that the goal of the series was to help “dispel prejudice.” Moore asked him pointedly, “Do you think a teacher has academic freedom to challenge a child’s belief in God?” Parents had rights, too, Moore insisted, earning loud, raucous applause.
Yet the right-wing revolt failed to persuade the school board to remove the books before the school year started. In September 1974, ministers from conservative churches in the area such as the Rev. Marvin Horan and the Rev. Avis Hill called for a boycott of public schools until the books were removed.
National conservative leaders climbed on the Kanawha County bandwagon. Phyllis Schlafly praised the protesters for rejecting the notion that a modern education required “a tolerance of violence, theft, adultery, obscenity, profanity and blasphemy.” From the White House, President Gerald Ford’s education secretary, Terrel Bell, encouraged textbook publishers to examine their content and concentrate on “good literature that will appeal to children without relying too much on blood and guts and street language.” Pundit Andrew Tully attacked the books as mere “pornography” that was “imposed on the country by a tiny minority in the name of ‘academic freedom.’ ”
Support from on high emboldened boycotters in Kanawha County, who felt they could not wait for a solution and needed to act immediately — even violently — to shield their children from dangerous literature.
Angry mobs surrounded schools and the episode turned violent. District offices were dynamited. An elementary classroom was firebombed. Snipers shot school buses on their way to pick up students. A protesting minister led a public prayer for God to kill school board President Albert Anson, and a conservative judge in a nearby town formally charged board members, along with Superintendent Kenneth Underwood, with contributing to the delinquency of minors through the use of “pornographic and un-American” textbooks.
Teachers and administrators lived in fear. Underwood slept in a different place every night because of repeated death threats. One teacher told journalists she had been repeatedly threatened by anonymous phone callers.
In the end, despite all the heat and anger, the protests failed. For one thing, families were not willing to keep their children out of school. By the third week of September, almost all students were back in school. When it came down to it, most families — even ones who might have considered themselves fairly conservative — valued school more than they valued activists’ pleas to boycott the books.
Soon, another local judge dismissed the charges against Anson and the others as mere harassment. Rallies in favor of the textbooks grew far larger than anti-book protests, including one in Charleston, W.Va., that October with 2,000 participants.
Students also protested in favor of the books. At George Washington High School in Charleston, for instance, students walked out on Sept. 12, with the approval of their principal. As one student leader told journalists, “We felt it’s hard to let a minority rule the majority.”
Conservative leaders seemed authentically surprised. They had assumed that their views about literature, racism and sexuality were shared by the vast majority of Americans. As Alice Moore told an NBC news reporter in the early days of the protest, “the educational establishment is completely removed from the mainstream thinking of the American people.” To their chagrin, Moore and her allies learned the hard way that they, in fact, were the ones who were out of touch with mainstream thinking.
Right-wing anger was real. Conservative anxiety was powerful. And the resulting threats were dangerous. But conservative assumptions were out of step with reality. Instead of a vast moral majority, by the 1970s only a small and shrinking proportion of families held right-wing ideas about student safety.
Nevertheless, a certain type of conservative activist — the type who dreams of making America great again — has always assumed the privilege of defining the boundaries of student safety for everyone. They have assumed the right to sharply limit academic freedom if it crossed a line that they unilaterally imposed. As in Kanawha County, their outbursts have not been successful. In recent months, despite all the fury about critical race theory and mask mandates, fire-breathing right-wing candidates have tended to lose school-board elections. And politicians like Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) have been burned by embracing conservative attacks on public education.
Yet along the way, protests from the right have inflicted damage on schools and students. Today, just as in the 1970s, protests have spread a toxic blend of fear, anxiety and censorship. Teachers, students and parents might be able to take heart knowing that threats and boycotts often appear to have far broader support than they actually have. But real academic freedom means more than just the eventual defeat of book-burning mobs. It means more than waiting until the next election to oust irresponsible politicians. It means the freedom to teach the truth without always looking over our shoulders.
This essay is the second in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context for controversies surrounding free expression in education today.