Conservative school boards have banned award-winning books like “Maus” and “The Bluest Eye.” Activists are targeting children’s books that state that mating seahorses “twirl their tails together and twirl gently.” Some lawmakers even called for the offensive textbooks to be burned.
These tactics, though extreme, are only the latest in a century of conservative efforts. has promised not to use His one instance in the 1970s, when protesters boycotted public schools in Kanawha County, West Virginia, reveals that these efforts have been driven by his two assumptions. Second, conservative activists have the right to impose their vision of security on the rest of society.
The explosive Kanawha County school war seemed to come out of nowhere. At a calm and quiet Board of Education meeting on April 11, 1974, the Kanawha County Board heard of a new series of literary textbooks being adopted in West Virginia. Part of his Interaction series, edited by James Moffett, the new book reflects a renewed push to include “multi-ethnic content.” As well as white male authors, the books featured in this series ranged from belligerent black authors such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson, to non-traditional poets such as EE Cummings, to non-standard poets such as the daredevil Ebel Knievel. It included a variety of voices, even pop writers.
The school board seemed ready to accept the new book as a matter of course, but one new member spoke out. Alice Moore was new to Kanawha County, but a seasoned conservative activist, connected to national anti-abortion and anti-multicultural networks. She expressed her concerns about the use of “dialectology” (non-standard English) and what she saw as the anti-American tone of the new book.
Moore was voted yes on the board, but her concerns sparked outrage among right-leaning members of the local community. The next school board meeting was Mob. Speakers opposed to the new book, including local pastors and members of the activist parent group, tried to make their case. One parent warned that poems like Cummings’ “I love when my body is with you” inspired their children to undergo dangerous sexual experiments. They believed other choices forced white children into the “ghetto language”. As one activist put it, the tone of the book was “negative, racist, impulsive, and in some cases downright vulgar.”
Trying to defend the book at a school board meeting, one English teacher explained that the series’ goal was to “dispel prejudice.” Moore asked him, “Do you think teachers have the academic freedom to challenge a child’s belief in God?”
But the right-wing rebellion was unable to persuade the school board to remove the book before the school year began. In September 1974, local Conservative church ministers, including Reverends Marvin Horan and Avis Hill, called for a public school boycott until the books were removed.
Conservative leaders across the country jumped on the Kanawha County bandwagon. Phyllis Schlafly praised the protesters for rejecting the idea that modern education requires “tolerance for violence, theft, adultery, obscenity, blasphemy and blasphemy.” From the White House, Terrell Bell, President Gerald Ford’s secretary of education, told textbook publishers to scrutinize its content and find it “an excellent book that appeals to children without undue reliance on blood and guts and street language.” I encouraged him to concentrate on literature. Critic Andrew Talley attacked the books as “just ‘porn’ forced upon the nation by a minority in the name of ‘academic freedom’.” ”
Support from a fearless boycott of Kanawha County who could not wait for a solution and felt the need to act immediately, even violently, to protect children from dangerous literature.
An angry mob surrounded the school and the incident turned violent. The district office was dynamite. An elementary school classroom was bombed. A sniper shot a school bus on its way to pick up students. A protesting pastor led a public prayer asking God to kill school board president Albert Anson, and a conservative judge in a nearby town, along with superintendent Kenneth Underwood, called for “pornography and non-compliance.” American textbook.
Teachers and administrators lived in fear. Underwood slept in a different place each night due to repeated death threats. One teacher told journalists that he was repeatedly threatened by anonymous phone calls.
In the end, despite all the heat and anger, the protest failed. For one thing, families didn’t want their children to go to school. By the third week of September, nearly all students had returned to school. After all, most families, even those who considered themselves fairly conservative, valued school more than activist pleas to boycott the book.
Soon another local judge dismissed the charges against Anson and others as mere harassment. Much bigger than the anti-book protests.
Students also protested in support of the book. For example, at George Washington High School in Charleston, a student expelled with the principal’s approval on September 12th. As one student leader told a journalist, “I found it difficult to let the minority dominate the majority.”
Conservative leaders seem genuinely surprised. They assumed their views on literature, racism, and sexuality were shared by the majority of Americans. As Alice Moore told an NBC news reporter early in the protest, “Educational institutions have been completely removed from the mainstream mindset of Americans.” , I learned the hard way that they weren’t really in touch with mainstream thinking.
Right-wing anger was real. Conservative fears were powerful. And the resulting threat was dangerous. But conservative assumptions did not match reality. Instead of a majority moral majority, by the 1970s the proportion of families holding right-wing ideas about student safety had dwindled and shrunk.
Nevertheless, a certain type of conservative activist — the type who dreams of making America great again — has always assumed the privilege of defining the boundaries of student safety for all. have the right to severely restrict academic freedom if it crosses the line they unilaterally imposed. In recent months, despite critical racial theories and outrage about mask mandates, fire-breathing right-wing candidates have tended to lose school board elections. Politicians like (Republicans) are burned by embracing conservative attacks on public education.
But along the way, protests from the right have taken a toll on schools and students. Today, just like in the 1970s, protests spread a toxic mixture of fear, anxiety and censorship. Teachers, students, and parents may take comfort in knowing that threats and boycotts often appear to have much broader support than they actually do. But true academic freedom isn’t just about finally defeating the book-burning mob. It makes more sense than waiting until the next election to oust irresponsible politicians. It means the freedom to teach the truth without looking over our shoulder all the time.
This essay, the second in a Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, provides historical context for the debate over free expression in education today.