The textbook wars of Kanawha County

Alice Moore who began it all stated “I never dreamed it would come to this.”

Alice Moore makes her case during a crowded school board meeting in 1974.

Alice Moore makes her case during a crowded school board meeting in 1974.

Mike Selby

This is the worst one.

In March of 1974 the Kanawha County school board (Charleston, West Virginia) voted to adopt 325 book titles to be used during the upcoming school year. All the books were chosen from a state-approved list, and were reviewed by a committee comprising of board members, teachers, and parents. The books were then on display for two months at Kanawha Country Public Library for anyone to examine.

With zero objections to 325 elementary school readers and textbooks chosen from a state approved list, Kanawha County officially adopted each title into the curriculum of the upcoming school year. Before moving on to other business, the meeting was interrupted with an objection.

The challenge came from Alice Moore — who the board was unfortunately all too familiar with. Mrs. Moore — who was neither an educator, board member, or even a parent — had successfully lobbied to have sex-education removed from all Kanawha County schools in 1970. Fronting a group calling themselves MOTOREDE (Movement to Restore Decency), she had somehow convinced enough trustees to vote against “the growing menace of school courses on sex.”

Moore was back now, stating incorrectly that the trustees had not given the public enough to review any of the chosen books. She demanded that they all be sent to her home for review. Although illegal (the state dictates that books are to be reviewed by professional educators), the board agreed to send them to her, probably in hopes this would placate her and she would go away.

No such luck. Moore was outraged, claiming that 325 different books by hundreds of authors and various publishers were somehow all “filthy trash, disgusting, one-sidedly in favour of blacks, and unpatriotic.”  Sensing zero outrage from the board, she proceeded to contact Mel and Norma Gabler of Hawkins, Texas.

The Gablers were professional textbook protesters, calling their business Educational Research Analysis. All three of those words certainly didn’t apply to the organization, or even to the Gablers themselves, who felt modern education was destroying society.  They launched lengthy campaigns against books that taught evolution, sex education, contribution by minorities, critical thinking, and any book that dared claim slavery was wrong.

The Gablers furnished Moore with all the help she needed, and soon she was reading excerpts from the offending school books at community events, over the radio and on television. And what should have been seen as an inane crusade by someone with too much time on their hands, somehow began to gain ground.

The first sign was during the spring PTA meeting, which erupted into a screaming match as exactly half the members were siding with Alice Moore, and half were not. This was soon repeated when a coalition of interdenominational ministers from ten separate churches issued a statement supporting the school board’s choice, only to be met by a statement from exactly ten other churches voicing their dissent.

New organizations began to appear, ones with names such as Magic Valley Mother’s Club, Christian-American Parents, and Concerned Citizens began to petition and picket the school board. Supporting the board were the NAACP, the YWCA, and the West Virginia Human Rights Commission.

The first week of June saw Kanawha County papered with flyers which excerpted passages from two books: Sol Gordon’s ‘Facts About Sex for Today’s Youth’ and Kate Millet’s ‘Sexual Politics.’  Printed beside the “filthy” experts were graphic illustrations of male and female genitalia.

That the accompanying pictures came from neither book, or the more obvious fact that the titles alone are clearly not elementary school readers, was someone lost on a growing number of outraged citizens. When the offending passages and illustrations were not found in any of the newly adopted books, many felt the school board was simply lying about them.

The third week of June that year saw the school year end, but also saw a number of protest groups not from the county set up camp. These included the National Parents Organization, the Guardians of Traditional Education, and the Ku Klux Klan.

A quiet summer was the calm to all that followed.

The first week of school in September coincided with a wildcat miner’s strike, who sought to reduce coal stockpiles until their union ratified new wages with the government. The miners extended their wage goals with that of the book protesters, and thousands of miners began to picket elementary schools. Fearful parents simply kept their children at home, causing an unwanted boycott of every school in the county.

Two fundamentalist preachers from out of state arrived, and became the de facto leaders of a county now under siege.  One addressed a large crowd and actually urged them to ask God to kill the members of the school board. The other made no such shocking statements, instead he dynamited two elementary schools (which were thankfully empty due to the miners’ strike). Things go from bad to worse from here, as numerous homes of both school trustees and mine officials begin to be bombed.

Violence, including beatings and shootings erupt all over the county, with school board trustees fearing for there lives. Members of the press including a CBS television crew are severely beaten by protesters.  Police escorting busloads of children are halted by sniper fire.

The National Guard was sent in after more school bombings, car bombings, and physical beatings. A superintendent and two administrators were placed under citizen’s arrest at gunpoint, charged with “contributing to the delinquency of minors.” They were later freed by the actual police.

A protest of thousands marched through Charleston, holding signs readings “Trash is for Burning”—a not so veiled threat at city officials. Things took a giant step towards the unthinkable when police uncovered a plan to dynamite school buses full of children.

And that was somehow that. The very close murder of the children caused everyone to step back. The protesters went back to their home states, the schools reopened, and the perpetrators of violence were handed lengthy prison sentences.  Even Alice Moore who began it all stated “I never dreamed it would come to this.”

The following April, the Kanawah County School once again voted to adopt all 325 books off of the state approved list. Not one person objected, and they were all made part of the curriculum the following fall.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library