Trey Kay Published

Us & Them Remembrance — 50 Years Ago: Reflecting On A Pivotal Kanawha County Board Of Education Meeting

A black and white photograph of a woman sitting at a desk with a microphone. She sifts through papers. Behind her, a man sits at another desk looking over papers. The photo looks like it is from the 1970s.
Kanawha County School Board member Alice Moore in 1974.
Charleston Newspapers

This op-ed is a companion piece to the Us & Them episode “Revisiting The Great Textbook War.”

Fifty years ago, June 27, 1974, the Kanawha County Board of Education set off a chapter of the nation’s culture wars as it debated whether to purchase a controversial series of new textbooks. The meeting room was packed and emotions were hot. 

I was entering the seventh grade that year and the board was considering new English and language arts textbooks to reflect America’s multicultural society. School board member Alice Moore, the wife of a local preacher, was offended by some of the material that she believed to be unpatriotic and anti-Christian. 

However, there were many people in Kanawha County who supported these new multicultural textbooks. The West Virginia Human Rights Commission, Council of Churches and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) all wanted classroom materials to include works by African American writers like James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes.

The June 27 school board meeting and the decision whether to purchase the books was a high-stakes issue with significant consequences. The debate that day mirrored other culture war battles like the Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1920s — as well as the contentious protests today over books with LGBTQ themes. 

But what had people so worked up in Kanawha County in 1974?

Some textbook critics feared references to the Vietnam War might open the door to unpatriotic views. The opponents cited an English textbook with an e.e. cummings poem they called pornographic. Another book included a racially and sexually-charged passage from former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.

A black and white photo of an adult woman sits at a desk. A microphone is in front of her along with a large stack of papers.
At the pivotal meeting on June 27, 1974, Kanawha County School Board member Alice Moore reviews transcripts as protesters watch through the board office auditorium windows. 

“I almost think that Kanawha County was a test case. This was happening in different places around the country, but I wonder if they didn’t think they could come into West Virginia … that these were backward, uneducated people. They could come into this little state; they could do whatever they wanted to and nobody was going to question them.”

— Alice Moore

Photo Credit: Charleston Newspapers

Alice Moore was offended by the inclusion of a Sigmund Freud essay. “[Freud] said every child — every boy desires to have sex with his mother and every girl desires to have sex with her father,” Moore recalled when I interviewed her in 2009 for my audio documentary The Great Textbook War. “And that was so repulsive to me, to think that any child would see that, I knew that thought would never leave their mind.”

Sixteen people testified at the board meeting that night — 10 in favor of the new books and six against them. There were shouts of “Yeah,” “Amen,” and wild applause whenever someone spoke against the books. 

Mike Wenger supported the new textbooks at that meeting. Wenger said it was important to give children a sense of their reality. “If I have been successful as a parent, nothing my children can read in school can hurt them,” Wenger said in his testimony to the board. “To summarize, this is the only world in which we live, we cannot hide it from our children, we can only determine when they will find it and where they will find it, let them find it today rather than tomorrow and let them find it here in our schools rather than on some street corner in New York or in some rice paddy in Vietnam.” 

As a seventh grader, I saw Kanawha County’s textbook war as symbolic. It brought violence to my city — to places I knew — and showed me adults who were unwilling or unable to compromise. When I reviewed the audio from the June 27 meeting, I recognized familiar voices: one of my neighbors spoke, and the moms of some of my school friends. Others I didn’t know at the time but they would be remembered for their comments. Listening to that audio made me tense up, even though I already knew the outcome. I thought about how uneasy people must have felt 50 years ago.

The conflict revealed in that board meeting continues to bubble up in our public schools. In Dayton, Tennessee in the 1920s during the Scopes Monkey Trial, the issue was whether the Biblical and scientific account of the origins of life could coexist in public schools. In Kanawha County, the question in 1974 was how school classrooms could include the full spectrum of the Black experience in American culture and think critically about societal structures. Culture war battles continue today as the National Education Association reports that nearly half of schools face challenges to teaching about issues of race and racism, and their policies and practices relating to LGBTQ issues. One third of schools report attempts to limit access to books in the library. 

Most everyone agrees the stakes are high. As the culture wars play out in our public schools, these debates can really undermine confidence. Our education system values local control, which means each of the nation’s nearly 13,600 school districts tackles these debates independently. Educators, parents and students all play a crucial role, each bringing their own sense of values and rights to the discussion. That’s often why this fundamental rift in American values bubbles to the surface. We all believe in rights and have values, but whose rights and values take precedence?

It’s so easy in today’s climate to create an “us versus them” atmosphere. But as I’ve learned from talking across the cultural divide for more than a decade, when we really listen to each other, there are ways to see fresh perspectives and sometimes even come to new conclusions. Yet, when we’re in the middle of a values battle, it’s pretty scary, because we just don’t know how things will end. 


This episode of Us & Them is presented with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council, CRC Foundation and Daywood Foundation.

This episode was honored with George Foster Peabody, Edward R. Murrow and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards.

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