In April 1974 the five members of the Kanawha County Textbook Selection Committee, supported by teacher readers from elementary and secondary schools, recommended the adoption of new textbooks designed to support an English Language programme to be taught in the County’s schools. The textbooks included a wide diversity of views and opinions and exposed children in the Appalachian region to other cultures and new ideas. Following the impact of the civil rights movement across the USA during the 1960s, the textbooks included stories and poems by, and about, African-Americans and other minorities and narrative stories emphasising tolerance and the acceptance of alternative and different traditions and cultures. The books also included approaches to pedagogy which included simulation and the development of critical thinking skills. The recommended list was presented to the Kanawha County School Board on 12th March 1974, and the books were displayed in the Kanawha County Library for public examination.
On 16th May when the Textbook Selection Committee presented its adoption justification the School Board agreed to make a final decision on 27th June regarding the formal adoption of the books. The decision to consider adopting the books caused uproar in the community and in a nine month period between April 1974 and January 1975, mobs throwing rocks forced the County’s one hundred and twenty four public schools to close, demonstrators surrounded schools and blockaded school bus garages, two people were shot, schools were dynamited and firebombed and teachers were threatened. Coal miners went on strike in support of the protest, the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated in the streets of Charleston and a preacher and his followers discussed murdering families who wouldn’t join the school boycott (Charleston Gazette, 12th October 1993).
As a student at John Adams Junior High School in 1974, I saw firsthand the great Dirty Schoolbook war. Most days my classmates and I had to walk through a picket line of Bible Thumping Fundamentalist Crazies on our way into the school from the bus. Some of the people in the picket lines were parents of some of the kids on the buses. My stepmother was a frequent protester as was the father of one of my best friends. It was humiliating to say the least.
John Adams, though, was probably the least affected school in the County. Being well out of the Eastern Kanawha County Bible Belt and fairly isolated, there were relatively few protesters that showed up every day. But the TV reports from schools in the East Bank and DuPont districts were downright scary, with video of grown adults verbally assaulting kids who were only trying to go to school.
I have so many frightening memories of that time: The shots fired at picket lines at Smith Transfer in Belle where my uncle worked, a car burned on my street because it had a bumper stickers that might have indicated support for the school board, trees cut down to block roads so our buses couldn't pass and the fire-bombing of Loudendale Elementary where my cousins went to school. There was at least one case of a dynamite attack on a school (Midway Elementary). As a 14 year old I didn't understand it. As a 47 year old, I understand it less.
I think about the episode from time to time, but the memories are more fleeting each year. Thank God for Google. A quick search on "Kanawha County Textbook Controversy" brings up a whole host of blurbs on this site or that about the events surrounding the battle for the books. Here is one I found particularly interesting, a scholarly treatment of the subject done by Dr. Keith Crawford who is apparently from the United Kingdom. This essay has some great pictures, too.
Someone really ought to make a movie. But then again, please don't: I just couldn't take seeing Sean Penn as Ezra Graley, or more properly, hearing him using an exaggerated Appalachian accent as I know he or just about any other Hollywooder would do. Let's just leave well enough alone. Afterall, we already have "Inherit the Wind."