FEATURE ARCHIVES

Holy War in West Virginia: A Fight Over America’s Future

“The battle in Kanawha is a cultural revolution, in the strictest sense of the term: an effort by the rural working class to wrest schools — the means of production of their children — away from the permissive technocrats who now control them.”

by

Charleston, W. Va. — The turbulent textbook controversy that has crippled schools here is more than a simple fight over the adoption of 325 first through 12th grade supplementary English textbooks. For the 229,000 people who live in the coal and petrochemical-rich Kanawha Valley it is not an isolated battle, not some rustic re-run of the Scopes trial, but a microcosm of a basic conflict in our culture. It is nothing less than a fight over America’s future. 

This fight has taken place in many different localities, over many different issues. Its themes are the same as those that were echoed in New York City’s fight over community-controlled schools, in Boston’s battle over busing, in the black militant attempt to establish a New Africa in Mississippi, and in the Chicanos’ attempt to drive most Anglos from administrative jobs in Crystal City, Texas. Can America’s mainstream culture, made pervasive by the electronic media, absorb all the diverse groups that live here, that are passionate about maintaining their identity? 

To me, the protests here are a fresh sign that the melting pot — with its dream of a single, unified American culture — is largely a myth. I don’t believe we have ever been united except during times of national crisis like wars and assassinations — and as consumers. I think that, to an unrecognized extent, we are a collection of religious, ethnic, and generational tribes who maintain an uneasy truce. We had to conquer this continent in order to exploit its vast resources. But we were never able to conquer our own atavistic hatreds and loyalties, to live comfortably as a single people. 

The battle in Kanawha is a cultural revolution, in the strictest sense of the term: an effort by the rural working class to wrest schools — the means of production of their children — away from the permissive technocrats who now control them. 

It is a holy war between people who depend on books and people who depend on the Book. 

And it may be a harbinger of fights that will flare up during the next few years as the Depression, the Mideast war, and the rise of conservative Christianity cause people to lash back at the cosmopolitan elite (the “educated fools” or “upper-class Communists,” as they’re called down here) they blame for their problems. If the textbook controversy is a harbinger, then education is likely to be a more important battleground than the media or pornography, though those issues kindle the same profound wrath. You can turn off your TV set, avoid movies or massage parlors, but you must send your kids to school. 

Most of the people who Live in Kanawha County’s hollers see the textbooks as a collection of skeptical comments about God, of four­-letter words and salacious stories, of subversive essays by black revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. The books symbolize the horrifying 1960’s culture which the schools are inflicting on their young; the infection that began on liberal campuses has spread to Kanawha County and now threatens to turn their kids into sex maniacs, drug addicts, and Manson-like killers. So they want to cleanse America of its filth if they’re strong enough; seal themselves off from the plague if that’s their only alternative. For the moment, that means they’ve turned their backs on upward mobility. They feel that if their children establish any friendly contact with the corrupt forces that run the nation’s institutions, their characters are certain to be corrupted. 

Here the fight is between the “hillers” and the “creekers.” The “hillers” tend to support the textbooks: They are the doctors, lawyers, mine managers, and petrochemical engineers who live on Charleston’s luxurious South Hills. They read the Times and The Wall Street Journal just as avidly as the Charleston Daily Mail or Gazette. Many take the United Airlines flight to New York City so often that it’s almost like a commuter trip. They make regular vacation trips to Atlanta or Miami or, if they’re genuinely rich, to Europe. They regard the books as crucial ingredients of the kind of contemporary school system that will let their kids keep up with their peers across the country — that will help them get into Harvard or Haverford instead of Morris Harvey or West Virginia Tech. 

The “creekers” live in the rural towns and hollers — Big Chimney, Cabin Creek, Cross Lanes — that dot this sprawling, windy, moun­tainous county. They work in the mines, or in fetid factories like the duPont plant in Balle, or, if they’re lucky, as truck drivers or construction workers. Most of them have never been on an airplane in their lives. Many went to cities like Chicago, Dayton, or Cleveland during the Appalachian migration of the 1960’s, but they found those places alien and hostile and returned to their own tight-knit communities. Their reminiscences are laced with the same bitterness they display toward the textbooks. 

In September, the books were introduced into the schools. There was so much violence in the county that the board of education decided to withdraw the books from the schools for a thirty-day review period. During that time, there were exchanges of gunfire, school rooms were dynamited, school buses shot at, cars and homes firebombed. One night, someone put fifteen sticks of dynamite under Charleston’s board of education building and demolished part of it. It was clear that most of the county felt some sympathy for the protestors. In November, a Charleston Gazette poll showed that just 19 percent of the community wanted all the books returned to the schools. Nevertheless, in mid-November, the board of education voted 4-1 to return most of the controversial materials to the schools, though they ruled that some of the most controversial grade school books would remain in the library. The sporadic violence continued. And, as in any war, attitudes kept hardening. 

Susan Bean, 35, who lives in South Hills, was a member of the committee that reviewed all the textbooks. She’s the wife of a landscape architect, the mother of three grade school kids. She was born in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, where her father was a member of the John Birch Society. In his small construction business, he sys­tematically underpaid all the blacks who worked for him. He whipped Susan whenever he caught her reading unorthodox books, whenever she disagreed with him. At 17, she ran away from home, got a job as a typist at Sears, and worked her way through the University of Georgia, where she was an English major. 

Interestingly, it is Susan Bean’s conservative background that has made her a fierce supporter of the books. Indeed, she is glad that her children will study the religious unorthodoxies that her father despised. One day, I told her I thought we were witnessing a class struggle, and she responded, quite tartly, “Sure it’s a class struggle, but not in the way you outsiders think. You come from a liberal background. You can’t imagine how much the opportunity to give my kids unlimited freedom means to me. It’s a way of making sure that I, and my kids, rise above my past.” 

Nell Wood, fortyish, the English teacher who selected the text­books, is the daughter of a Fundamentalist railroad engineer from a rural county in West Virginia. Now she teaches an honors English class for seniors at the prestigious George Washington High School, nestled in the midst of South Hills. Though most of her students come from wealthy, sophisticated families, she is still a practicing fundamentalist. She never smokes or drinks, feels uncomfortable when people take the Lord’s name in vain, and has to ask her team teachers to read whatever four-letter words crop up. 

It’s possible that her support of the textbooks comes from her special classroom experience. There are teachers who argue that if she had to face a classroom full of rural work­ing class kids each day she might feel more ambivalent about the issue. But she is a woman who loves books and wants to share that pas­sion with her students. She refuses to weed out stones and attitudes that other fundamentalists consider blas­phemous because I can’t  bear the thought of standing in front of a group of kids and telling lies by omitting ideas I know exist.” Just as many protestors have quotations from the Bible 1n their homes she has a quotation from the Areopagitica in her spare. tiny cubicle behind the George Washington High School Li­brary. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature. God’s image: but who kills a book kills reason it­self.”

But thousands of people here say they’d die fighting the blasphemy that Nell Wood believes is freedom. Emmett Thompson, 55, a riverboat engineer from Nitro, West Virginia, lives quite comfortably in a neat red brick house which is larger than Susan Bean’s white frame house on South Hills. His oldest son is a trim, impeccably dressed short-haired man who has just graduated from the Lynchburg Bible College. Thompson, whose bushy cinnamon­colored moustache makes him look a little more dashing than his boy, is what people here call a “Wednesday nighter” — so devoted to the local Calvary Baptist Church that he at­tends it twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday. He considers the intro­duction of the books “moral geno­cide.”

“It’s an insidious attempt to re­place our periods with their question marks,” he says, and he thinks it has to he fought. In a county where coal miners are experts with dynamite, where every rnan and boy is a hunter and every house 1n every holler has plenty· of guns and plenty of ammu­nition. he longs for a “return to the spirit of the Boston Tea Party,” “revolution of righteousness.”

Skeeter Dodd. the manager of radio station WKLC, is the sort of person who might help lead that revolution. A chunky, sturdy man in his mid-40s. Skeeter is an early morning disk jockey. whose taste in country music, in syndicated jokes from the “Funny Wire,” and in imaginary dialogues with the fic­tional hillbilly “grandad” has made him a favorite with “creekers” throughout the county.

“If they don’t wake up to me. they ain’t gonna wake up that day,” he says in his exaggerated West Virgin­ia accent, his genuinely hearty laugh.

Though KLC is Charleston’s third largest station, Skeeter spends much of his time worrying about collecting bills from advertisers and finding new sponsors who will keep his sta­tion afloat. But he is also a patriot who, like Emmett Thompson, sees the textbook struggle as a salvo in a war to “restore the faith of our fathers. Look at it this way, friend. They tax us for the schools, but the schools don’t represent us. Isn’t that what them dumb hillbillies and creekers was fighting about 200 years ago?”

He not only despises the books, he believes that they are part of a communist plot hatched in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1917 to destroy democracy. He showed me a replica of this curious document which proposed, to corrupt the people. get them away from religion. Make­ them superficial. Destroy their rug­gedness.” And, like thousands of people here, he believes in the existence of an upper-class conspiracy to bring Communism to America. Most people equate Communism with de­cadence. and argue that because rich people want to legalize drugs. legitimize pre-marital sex. porno­ graphic movies and massage par­lors, they are subversive. But Skeeter’s reasons are more person­al. His dad worked on an assembly line, he says. “Neighbor, you better believe that under a system like socialism this old creeker’d still be back there.”

He’d been in Navy intelligence during the Korean War. and now saw himself combating Communism in Kanawha County. He carried a citizens band radio in his car so that other movement leaders could alert him if there was trouble. He was “Boots” in a cb network that includ­ed “Kojack,” “Blue Flag,” and “Money Man.” Late on a chilly fall night, wearing his battered black overcoat as he slumped over his mike and exchanged information on the small radio. he looked like a weary, dedicated member of a nascent band of freedom fighters, the nucleus of an army which wants to cleanse America, to restore it to the paths of righteousness.

From the Holler to the Space Age
In a sense, this is the story of an idea whose time never quite came. The idea was that educational planners could reach into America’s ghettos, its hollers, and its tradition-­bound ethnic communities, like Can­arsie and South Boston, and coax people there into the “melting pot.” That was the principal rationale be­hind bussing. It was also the reason that states like West Virginia mandated “multi-cultural, multi-ethnic” programs in their classrooms.

The theory is clearly stated in a funding proposal for the training of teachers, dated 1970, signed by West Virginia’s Superintendant of Schools. According to the document, teachers are supposed to be trained to “induce changes … in the behavior of the ‘culturally lost’ of Appalachia … The setting of the public school should he the testing ground. the diagnostic basis, the experimental center, and the core of this design … The most important ingredient of social change is the change agent” — the teacher.

You have only to look at the textbooks to see how they fit in with that theory. Though I personally found many of them quite appealing — the sorts of books I would like my two children to study —I  could also see how their sheer physical appearance would shock parents who had been brought up on Dick and Jane stories, on the six point type of the King James Bible, and on the rigid belief that education meant rote memori­zation. Now their children are using post-linear paper-backs where car­toons, photos, and gaudily colored pages dominate the print; where you don’t read about Evangeline or the Courtship of Miles Standish but about sports heroes, rock stars, and street gangs, where achievement doesn’t rest in a child’s ability to repeat a lesson accurately, but in her capacity to answer the provocative, questions at the end of each sec­tion.

And the stories do, as Emmett Thompson said, “attempt to replace our periods with question marks.” Reading them I could see, for the first time, how a theist, who was still embittered because the Supreme Court had outlawed school prayer, could believe that the relativism and humanism that I have always cherished as the highest kind of open-mindedness represents a dogma of its own whose very skepti­cism embodied religious values.

For example, there is one exercise which asks students to compare the biblical story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den with the tale of Androcles and the Lion. To conservative Chris­tians the question itself is blasphemy since it suggests that something they take to be revelations is nothing more than myth. Similarly, the books include writings like Mark Twain’s “Adam’s Diary,” which shows God’s first offspring as a bumbling upstate New York house­holder and includes a New Yorker-­style cartoon of a naked Adam and Eve peeping out over some bushes. The books invite students to invent their own gods, an exercise which suggests that God himself might be an invention.

The idea behind the books is the classic liberal assumption that a child who learns to question himself and his surroundings will grow beyond the confines of his culture. But, apart from the religious heresies, that means the books are also filled with a set of assumptions that many West Virginians regard as secular blasphemy. For example, some of the exercises encourage kids to tell each other about their dis- agreements with their parents, their reservations about authority. They ask whether it is ever legitimate to steal. They contain a great many four-letter words (whose use, in many Appalachian households, would condemn kids to severe beatings. ) They suggest that standard English may be one of many dialects spoken in this country, that rules of English are relative, that ghetto English might be a legitimate form of speech. Some of the high school textbooks include writings by revo­lutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver.

Now, it’s easy to see how a profes­sional educator, who has learned, almost as a matter of dogma, that schools were always the vehicles by which working-class kids achieved a level of success that was beyond the wildest dreams of their parents, could have thought that “multi-cul­tural. multi-ethnic” textbooks could bring kids into the “melting pot.”

But it’s probably too much to de­mand that a countyful of people make the spiritual journey from the holler to the Space Age in less than five years, especially when the trip forces them beyond the furthest barrier of their belief. It makes them the victim of a sort of psychic overload. Sometimes they submit in confusion. But in Kanawha County they found leaders who could articulate their fury at the annihilation of every value they revered. They fought back.

Alice Moore is the lone dissenter on the school board. Her husband, a Church of Christ minister, had parishes in Tennessee and Meridian Mississippi before he was station­ed in the lower-middle class town of after St. Alban’s. In 1970, two years after her arrival in Kanawha County, Alice Moore decided that she’d run for the board to symbolize her opposition to sex education in the schools. She was elected.

She is a stunningly beautiful, intelligent woman who adopts a Southern belle’s flirtatious style when she argues with the four male school board members.

But it’s clear that when Alice speaks thousands of people in the creeks and hollers listen. She’s in the newspapers nearly every day now, on TV nearly every night: a Joan of Arc, witty and resolute in her battle against the male “hiller” majority of the school committee. Whenever she appears at board meetings or at public rallies she is greeted with jubilant standing ovations, with cheerful choruses of “we love you, Alice, oh, yes, we do,” with clusters of flowers and placards that read “Alice Moore for President.” In place like Big Chimney and Kelly’s Creek — towns the hillers can barely find on their maps, let alone in their cars — her name inspires the same kind of glisteningly popular response as Huey Long’s did in the back­-country parishes of Louisiana.

When the textbooks came up for only adoption last spring, she was the only school board member who read them thoroughly. She was enraged by their emphasis on she calls “situational ethics” — the heathen creed that encorages kids to believe that any set of actions can be jus­tified by sociological conditions.

I could see her anger during a long interview one afternoon when she told me about a teacher training program she’d attended. her tone alternated between Andy Griffith­-like wonder and fundamentalist wrath. She was particularly amused by an instructor who’d tried to show how the concept of camouflage could be conveyed by hiding some green toothpicks in grass. He failed because the grass was so brights that the toothpicks were visible at once. Then, angering quickly, she talked about another education expert who sought to prove there was a cultural justification for Eskimo mothers who put their babies outside to freeze. “You know,” she said, “I was the only only person there who argued she was wrong.”

With my longish hair, my credentials from an urban liberal newspaper, I must have suddenly seemed like the enemy. She was courteous, and her lovely southern voice never lost its slight hint of conspiratorial laughter. But: “You just don’t understand what you’re doing to us,” she said. “How can any school board force me to send my kids to a school that teaches God is a myth, that justifies mothers who kill their young?” 

“But how could I send my kids to schools that outlawed those textbooks?” I asked. “I bate censorship as much as you hate blas­phemy.” “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe there’s no school system in this country that can provide for your kids and mine. Maybe we Americans have come to a parting of the ways.”

The Parting of the Ways: “Don’t Educate Them Above Their Rearing”
Maybe the parting of the ways has already come, and the only question is how many people are on each side. Certainly many conservative Christians in Kanawha County feel the frustration, the sense of isolation, that Alice Moore describes. They are so appalled by the America the textbooks represent that they’d rather forego the idea of college altogether, the dream of upward mobility, than risk the infection of relativism. 

Many young people are as passionate about the holy war as their parents. I spent a great deal of time interviewing the elite students at George Washington High and the working-class kids from Campbell’s Creek who attend duPont and East Bank. There is no communication between them-only mutual stereotypes, mutual contempt. 

Many students from George Washington are aware that their wealth spawns resentment, that the fact that they go to GW creates an almost insurmountable barrier of resentment. And some wish, wistfully, that the gap could be bridged. But even though there are many “creekers” at GW, not a single one of the fifteen “hiller” kids I interviewed had ever visited them or invited them home. And, though they’re theoretically aware that “those kids are angry because they think our parents have money,” it never occurred to them that their freedom to leave school in their family car, to gather at Gino’s Pizza for a pleasant lunch, rankled the kids from the hollers, who had to stay in school all day and eat their meals in the cafeteria. 

During an interview, one girl asked me, sharply, “why anybody would want to visit people like those coal miners.” When I asked some other students to describe the textbook protesters, they used phrases like “closed-minded and violent” people “who want to protest corrup­tion, but don’t even know how to use the word,” “Wednesday nighters who carry clubs.” Three students gave me an issue of The George Washington Pride, the school’s underground newspaper, which con­tained a long satire about the conflict in which the protest leader’s name is “the Rev. Rodney Necc, but my friends call me Red,” who has come to a demonstration sponsored by “the Christian and Righteous Association of Parents … to show my deep dedication to upholding CRAP.” 

I felt completely at ease with the kids from George Washington. But many “creekers,” and their children, were quite suspicious of me as an outsider, particularly because I was a reporter. At one of their rallies they had beaten up CBS’s Jed Duval. When I went to the “anti­-textbook headquarters” in Campbell’s Creek, two separate groups of people insisted on frisking me, on examining the documents in my wallet. A woman who saw that I had a pocket-sized Sony tape-recorder accused me of bugging them all. After a while, many of them became friendly, but they still warned that “they’d come looking for me” if I wrote an unfavorable story about them. 

That afternoon, at a small white Baptist Church, off a windy dirt road in Campbell’s Creek, I met with about 10 teenaged children of coal miners, truck drivers, construction workers, and ministers. They didn’t feel as free with me as the kids from GW had, so their comments were more cramped and restrained. Still, some were scornful of the hillers. They talked about their wild, dope-filled orgies where maids had to lock themselves in their rooms for fear of being beaten; of their rich, reckless parents, who were too busy to take care of their kids; of the ease with which they could bribe the police when they got in trouble. And of their hedonistic atheism. “They’re rich people who think they know everything,” said a coal miner’s daughter. “But they haven’t been taught right. They don’t have any common sense. They don’t really care about God.” 

Other kids sounded genuinely wounded by the “hillers'” insen­sitivity. “I can expect someone who doesn’t believe in God not to see anything wrong with the textbooks,” said one minister’s daughter. “But they can at least respect our rights, since it does say something about our God. We’re not asking that they teach Christianity in the schools. We’re just asking that they don’t insult our faith.” 

The truck driver’s son had a more practical objection. He was afraid that the books would hurt his chances of earning a living. He wanted to go to West Virginia Tech, to be an engineer, and felt he needed a “good basic education.” 

“I mean, they could teach English in school without going to this ghetto language or some of this slang,” he said. “lf they drop that standard, then society’s just going to go down. Until now, we’ve always been taught to make speeches in front of class, to write letters with correct punctuation. But in this new set of textbooks, they say, whatever sort of speech is common in your area, well, that’s all right. But if you move out of state, it will be just like going to a foreign country. How will you know what other people’s meaning is? And, I know from my father”s experience-if you look for a job and can’t talk the right English, they won’t hire you.” 

Of course, for many protestors the issues are far more general and ominous than the practical questions of grammar and employment. Many students from duPont and East Bank arc already into rock music and dope: the parents-and more chaste kids-are scared that the heretical ideas in the school-sanctioned textbooks will rid them of their last vestiges of social control. 

At meeting after meeting, I heard complaints about kids from Kanawha County who’d gone to college and come home acting like aliens. The conclusions? “Don’t let them be educated above their rearing.” “I was going to send my boy to college,” said the wife of a food salesman from St. Alban’s. “But I’ve changed my mind. It was a difficult decision. In my husband’s profession, now, you need a college degree. But I’d rather see him become a coal miner or a construction worker than know he was risking his soul.” 

If the Christians Fight Back
Of course, religious controversy is not new in these parts. Nor is separatism. The ancestors of the miners and teamsters who live in Cabin Creek and Big Chimney were Anglo-Saxon yeomen who settled here 200 years ago because they were dissatisfied with Virginia’s upper-­class Tidewater planters and their moribund Anglican church. They were inspired by the first Great Awakening, the national fit of religious ecstasy which, with its stress on holy fervor and personal salvation, swept westward from New England in the eighteenth century. Even now, in the small Baptist and Pentecostal churches that dot the landscape, thousands of Baptists and Pentecostals scourge themselves by listening to sermons that sound Like replicas of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” 

For generations, the Fundamentalists were sure that some version of their creed was America’s dominant faith. Then, without warning, they found themselves waging a defensive war against the heathen idea of evolution. The Scopes trial was a watershed: Between Clarence Darrow’s courtroom tactics and H. L. Mencken’s scathing prose, they suddenly ceased to be America’s conscience and became its laugh­ingstock. Though they clung to their faith, sometimes defiantly, many of them felt a private, lingering shame. It took decades for that shame to vanish. Now, their church is likely to become militant again. 

If Kanawha County’s army of Christian soldiers ever decides to wage all-out war, life here will be unbearable. This fall’s rash of dynamiting, firebombing, and shooting has terrified educators all over the county. Protest leaders deny responsibility for most incidents, blaming some on stoned-out kids, others on the books’ supporters. Still, the violence has merged with the Fundamentalists’ ardent support of censorship to make each teacher feel like a potential target. For example, during the weeks the books were out of the schools, English teachers all over the county were scared to teach anything but grammar in case any work of literature, even Shakespeare, goaded some hotheads to bomb their buildings. 

Late one Wednesday afternoon, someone threw three sticks of dynamite into a first-grade classroom at the Midway School in Campbell’s Creek. The teacher whose room was bombed had spent a decade collecting books and toys for kids whose families couldn’t afford them. Now, all that was destroyed. The room itself was littered with the debris from a waist-high partition-bookshelf that had been shat­tered by the blast. Hundreds of books were scattered on the floor. From the outside, all you could see was four shattered windows, the traces of some tables and chairs, a brightly lettered alphabet attached to the blackboard, and an American flag that still perched above the whole room. 

The Wet Bridge Elementary School in Cabin Creek, the most rural part of the sprawling county, is even more threatened than Midway. In October, someone tossed two sticks of dynamite into the building. The afternoon I visited it, just eight of 300 enrolled students showed up for classes. “Each day seems like it’s two million hours long,” said one teacher. 

One of the older teachers at the school has taught most of the parents of the boycotting children. The fact that they won’t trust her to use the books responsibly has robbed her of her self-confidence. In a community where hundreds of people are functionally illiterate, where they are ignorant of the rudiments of personal and sexual hygiene, she is now afraid to offend them by instructing them. 

“Soon we won’t be able to teach anything,” she says. “It’s as if those parents and ministers are staring over our shoulders, waiting to get us for saying anything that sounds immoral. I’m afraid that if this boycott ever ends, I won’t see the children as students. I’ll see them as spies in the classroom.”

So We Are Two Nations…
I have rarely covered a story that left me feeling as emotionally conflicted as this one has. For it seems to me that some of the pro­-textbook people — the northern educators and bureaucrats who devised them, not the local people who adopted them — are involved in a kind of cultural imperialism. But some of the protestors, who may be able to gain control of the county through the courts, through elections, and through threats of violence, are capable of outright totalitarianism. 

I know that the people who designed the textbooks believe that the children of Fundamentalists (and, to a lesser extent, of the white working class in general) have to be freed from the narrow-minded influence of their parents in order to become functioning members of twenty-first century America. But is it ethical or prudent to confront them with textbooks they regard as blasphemous, to use their class­rooms as “testing grounds,” to train their teachers to be “change agents”? To me, that is, quite literally, a way of telling kids “we have to destroy your culture in order to save you.” I’ve interviewed some curriculum reformers and textbook authors, and it’s clear that they see the “creekers” in the same derisive terms H. L. Mencken used during the Scopes trial. They regard the objections of people like Alice Moore as problems to be dealt with, not opinions to be respected. 

Their intentions are probably benign, but isn’t their policy a fresh example of the arrogance of power? You can invite a person into your culture. But I don’t believe you can impose your culture on another person without risking unforseeable psychological harm.

If the trip is voluntary, as Susan Bean’s was, then the person is likely to maintain a sense of identity and pride. But if it’s an imposed journey to a totally unknown destination — as it would be for many children in Kanawha County — then it could produce considerable psychological harm. It could set them adrift, with no reliable traditions, no moral compass, in an agnostic, post-linear, multicultural, multi­ethnic Space Age world which bas no connection at all to their familiar hollers.

You cannot outlaw, school prayer and still pretend that secular humanism — momentarily our national creed — does not carry its own deep assumptions about religion. Why not recognize that both attitudes are dogmas, and try to develop an educational system that’s flexible enough to furnish federal funds to schools that base their curriculum on theism as well as to those that base their curriculum on relativism? 

Most outside journalists who have come here to cover the textbook controversy have become fascinated by the relatively novel kinds of injustices I’ve been describing. As a result, many have tended to glorify the protestors a little, to explain their excesses by arguing that they are victims of a class struggle. But I think they are sentimentalizing a potentially dangerous movement. 

The last scene I witnessed in Charleston is the one that grates most painfully on my imagination. It was a protest rally the day after the textbooks were restored to the schools. It wasn’t in any of the rural churches or parks where the movement was nurtured, but in the cavernous c1v1c center, one of the most modern buildings in Charleston. 

The audience of 2,500 was in a fervent mood. Most of them wore large stickers which asserted “Jesus Wouldn’t Have Read Them.” As they sang “Amazing Grace,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “God Bless America,” more than half of them swayed back and forth, waving their right hands in the air to show that they were born-again Christians. The podium was bathed in lights from the TV cameras. On the right side, a stern, trim youth held the American flag aloft through the two-hour program. On the left side, an equally rigid young man bore a Christian flag, with a silky white field and a blood-purple cross as its emblem. The flags, and their martial bearers, framed each speaker.

The main speaker was the Rev. Marvin Horan, who is supposed to be one of the more moderate protest leaders — more moderate, say, than the Rev. Charles Quigley, who wore army fatigues that day and who’d shocked the county a few weeks earlier by issuing a public prayer that God would strike the pro-textbook school-board members dead.

As Horan spoke, his voice rolled with righteousness; the audience applauded nearly every sentence. He held a Bible in his right hand, two textbooks in his left and, shaking both arms angrily, he cried, “Which are we going to stand for, the word of God or the filth in these books?” Then he threatened his audience — “the Bible says not to use the Lord’s name in vain or the person who does so will not be held guiltless at the seat of judgment” — and read several blasphemous sentences from Catcher in the Rye, a text which he, at least, had clearly studied quite carefully. For he told his audience that “out of all this book, almost three hundred pages, there’s only twenty pages that don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.” Then, waving Catcher in the Rye aloft, he asked, “Do we surrender or do we fight?” 

Behind me someone yelled “burn ’em,” and hundreds of people began to applaud. 

Now Horan was talking about the importance of maintaining the school boycott. “The board of education may think we’re yellow, but our real colors are red, white, and blue … If we stand unified, we can rid Kanawha County of these filthy books and the people who put them there.” 

It wasn’t just platform rhetoric. Though the school boycott wasn’t nearly as successful as Horan had hoped, and the county became outwardly calm after another week of sporadic violence, the influence of the anti-textbook movement has spread to other states. The series of textbooks that started the controversy here has been rejected in Georgia and Texas. There are similar disputes in Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Indiana. The League of Decency, an antipornography organization from California, attaches enough impor­tance to the fight here to let its chief spokesman. a former TV personality named Robert Dornan who’s paid $42,000 a year, spend most of his time in Charleston. 

The school board’s decision to put most of the books back in the classrooms has been a Pyrrhic victory for the county’s liberals. Last week, the board adopted a set of guidelines — most of them proposed by Alice Moore — which would probably have caused this English series to be rejected if it had existed a year ago. From now on, Kanawha County textbooks can’t contain profanity; they can’t intrude on a student’s privacy by asking personal questions about his family or his inner feelings; they must encourage loyalty to the United States; they can’t defame any of America’s heroes; they must teach that traditional rules of grammar are essential for effective communications. 

It’s still possible that the English books will be withdrawn from the schools. Last week, some protesters filed a lawsuit charging that the adoption might have been illegal because the school board first voted for the books on April 11, instead of the state deadline of April 1. If that doesn’t reopen the issue, then the adoption of a new set of social studies textbooks, slated for next April, could kindle an even more disruptive set of skirmishes. 

Meanwhile, protestors from rural Kanawha County, which includes towns like Cabin Creek and Campbell’s Creek, are urging people in their region to secede from the rest of the county. 

Maybe the prominence of the Christian flag at Reverend Horan’s rally awakened my own tribal Jewish fears, but the experience left me deeply unsettled. The Reverend Horan, and the countless conservative Christians who identify with him, are absolutists. My question marks are sacred to me. Each attitude is a dogma, but the difference between them is vast. I would like to think that there is plenty of room for people like Marvin Horan in my America. But I don’t believe there’s room for me in his. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 3, 2020

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