The recent debate in the West Virginia Legislature about banning certain books in public libraries conjures up a time 50 years ago when West Virginia drew the attention of the whole nation. In 1974, a state mandate was issued to the West Virginia public schools to develop a new curriculum that should include multiethnic and multicultural literature. In Kanawha County a committee of county educators that spent 10 months developing a new language arts curriculum presented its recommendation to the Kanawha County School Board. Alice Moore, a board member who admitted she had not read the books, objected to the books in the new curriculum. She had previously opposed sex education and a liberal agenda in schools and was upset by the prospect of students studying Appalachian and African American vernacular. One book that she found particularly upsetting was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” At the June meeting of the School Board, members voted three to two to purchase the books.
Moore was joined by local fundamentalist preachers in her opposition to the new curriculum, and protests against and for the books erupted during the summer. When school opened in the fall, 25 percent of the 45,000 students did not go to class. Schools were picketed, and parents were fearful for their children to cross the picket line. The protest spread to the coal fields, and 3,500 miners walked off. Factories shut down and businesses were boycotted. The school board closed county schools for three days and removed the controversial books for further review. In October and November violence erupted with gunshots and arson. A school on Campbells Creek was dynamited, and a plot for more explosions that would have killed students was thwarted by the federal government. The Klu Klux Klan and the newly-formed conservative Heritage Foundation entered the fray. The Klan burned a cross in Kanawha County, marched on the capitol, and its Grand Dragon came to West Virginia.
As a proposed resolution, in November the School Board voted to return all the books to the classroom except for 35 of the most controversial that were placed in school libraries. Those books could be read by students only with parental permission. If a controversial book was discussed in the classroom, students could skip the class by going to the library. Despite the compromise, fights broke out at the school board meeting. By January, as winter set in, the controversy died down. Dr. Kenneth Underwood, Kanawha County’s school superintendent, resigned under pressure. Some schools refused to use any of the recommended books, and many teachers avoided bringing modern literature into their curriculum.
Photo: Courtesy of the West Virginia & Regional History Center, West Virginia University.
Sources: WVPBS, Charleston Gazette, From Textbooks To Tea Parties: An Appalachian Antecedent of Anti-Obama Rebellion by Carol Mason.