- Reading Appalachia from Left to Right: Conservatives and the 1974 Kanawha County Textbook Controversy
In April 1974, during a meeting of the Kanawha County Board of Education, the one female member of the board, Alice Moore, surprised everyone by attacking the textbook selection committee’s recommendation for a new language arts curriculum for all grades one through twelve. Questioning the committee’s purpose, relating it to national “anti-American” (3) trends, and objecting to what she referred to as lessons in “ghetto language” (3), Moore sparked a controversy that became the most violent curriculum dispute in American history. Protesters engaged in massive demonstrations, school boycotts, miners’ strikes, and violence against the schools and the board of education office building. These events drew national media attention to Kanawha County, suddenly a crossroads of the turn toward a New Right in the 1970s.
In Reading Appalachia from Left to Right, Carol Mason, a native of Kanawha County, draws upon archives, oral histories, personal interviews, and the contested books themselves, as well as insights from Appalachian, ethnic, and feminist studies to construct a carefully nuanced analysis of the leading figures, organizations, and ideologies in the fight against the textbooks. [End Page 118]
Scholars and journalists tended to lump all the protesters together in some version of Appalachian or gendered stereotypes, romanticizing or demonizing them as degenerate hillbilly racists, naïve people misled by the narcissistic Alice Moore, “a meddling woman” (11), or heroic workers, led by the coal miner, “that masculine icon of noble resistance to economic exploitation” (11). Mason insists that the reality was more complicated, pointing to four major groups among the book protesters, each of which had its own factions. Some took the view of Ku Klux Klan leader Ed Miller, worried about the “niggarization” (10) of the nation, and marched on the capitol in Klan garb. Some followed the anti-Semitic lead of Liberty Bell magazine, published by local John Birch Society bookstore owner, George Dietz, who warned of the advancing one-world Jewish-socialist government. Others, “business and professional people” (10), agreed with a local column by chemical company owner Elmer Fike, who attacked the books as obscene, anti-free market, socialist propaganda. Most of the protesters cast the issue as a struggle of concerned parents protecting “our children” and “our way of life” (11). Ministers Ezra Graley, Charles Quigley, Avis Hill, and Marvin Horan warned of God’s judgment and organized the protesters to save America’s soul. Alice Moore identified with the bulk of the protesters as a “concerned mother” (11), though she offered varied reasons for opposing the books. Mason notes that Moore rejected the Klan and worked closely with Fike and the ministers, but, that even before she launched her attack on the proposed new curriculum in 1974, she also had close ties with various nationally known Christian conservatives of the emerging New Right. Mason defends the dignity of the protestors from those who cast them into stereotypical categories, but she also notes the irony that they themselves sought to eliminate the voices of protest from the school curriculum, especially voices of Black Power and feminist or antiwar sentiment, the prevailing voices of protest of the day.
Mason concludes that the Kanawha textbook fight, more than a local squabble to be explained by worn-out clichés, was a “discursive pivot point” (181) that helped to shape the transition from the Old Right of anti-Communism (that had produced McCarthyism) to a New Right that focused on secular humanism, a new code term for liberalism that was allegedly anti-Christian. [End Page 119]