Kanawha Clergy Support Educators in Textbook Fight

Diocesan Press Service. November 4, 1974 [74307]

Eleanor Hamilton, Managing Editor, The Episcopal News

CHARLESTON, W. Va. -- Since early September, West Virginia's Kanawha County has been embroiled in a bitter, heated dispute about English textbooks and supplementary reading adopted for use by the County Board of Education in the public schools.

Nation-wide publicity has been given to the violence spawned by the conflict in which fundamentalists have battled, figuratively as well as literally, the more liberal- minded religious groups in Kanawha and surrounding counties.

West Virginia's "Bible Belt" areas have indeed been on the rampage. The protesters claim: that the books are un-American, anti-Christian, anti-religious, and immoral.

A high point of sensationalism was reached when one of the fundamentalist preachers leading the anti-textbook forces publicly asked God "to strike dead" three members of the Board of Education who had approved the books and opposed the protesters. On Halloween some 16 sticks of dynamite blasted the Board of Education building in Charleston's residential East End, one scary-short block from the Diocesan Center.

From the beginning there seems to have been no place for reason, compromise, quiet discussion, or friendly debate. Instead there has been violence, hate, oppression, lawlessness, and a complete absence of tolerance or reasonableness. And warnings of even sterner, more uncompromising resistance by the protesters fill the air all over the Kanawha Valley.

At the outbreak of the protest, when a majority of the members of the community looked benignly upon what they considered were a few rabble-rousers doing their own theological kick, both Bishops of the Diocese and nine clergy of the Kanawha Convocation, after study and discussion, prayerfully issued a statement supporting and commending the County Board of Education and its Curriculum Selection Committee "for its courageous action in selecting creative and timely textbooks for use in our county school system and we trust the Superintendent of Schools and his staff will persevere in maintaining such high standards of literary knowledge in the light of heated disapproval . . . . "

No one, at that time, realized what such perseverance would cost. From "disapproval" the protest turned into active rebellion, widespread picketing, firebombing of school and other buildings, disobedience to lawfully issued injunctions against interfering with the operation of mines, supermarkets, industrial plants, and other establishments, as well as interference with school bus schedules and the work of the Board of Education, to mention a few.

Kanawha County and surrounding communities have been like an armed camp, with mothers frightened to send their children to school and frightened not to send their children to school, with employers facing plant and business shut-downs, with miners entering the fray on the side of the protesters and causing the closing of many mines. Millions of dollars have been lost by industry and business as a direct result of the textbook battle.

The violence subsided somewhat when court injunctions restricting picketing and prohibiting interference with workers and others in the pursuit of their business were finally enforced and some of the protesters were jailed and fined for contempt. This was followed by all night and day "prayer vigils " by the fundamentalist forces on the steps of the county jail and continued threats to the peace of the community. Rallies at public places, including the State Capitol, became the order of the day.

Meantime, in the wake of several shootings and beatings by the protesters and the vandalizing of school buses and property, the Board of Education, in a move designed to ease the frictions and tensions and let democracy have its way, appointed a Textbook Advisory Committee of citizens to review the books and recommend which should remain in the schools and which should be thrown out as unsuitable for your minds in public schools.

At first the anti-textbook leaders agreed to the plan that gave each Board member the right to appoint three committee members. But when it became apparent that the committee was leaning toward approval of many of the books in question, the protesters took to their street, television, and newspaper soap boxes once more and the fight was on again!

Bishop Robert P. Atkinson, who has two children in the public schools in Charleston, was selected as a member of the review committee and it has been a harrowing, disillusioning, saddening experience for him in that capacity. He, as well as other members of the clergy, has been the subject of abuse, by written word in newspapers, by telephone in his own home, and verbally on the streets. He is pessimistic about the results, about even the hope for reconciliation.

Since the committee has been at work, several members in sympathy with the anti- textbook forces have resigned and set up a kind of rump review group. The president of the Board of Education has resigned; the Superintendent of Schools has announced he will resign effective when his contract terminates in early spring; the protesters have appealed to the White House for aid and comfort; and both sides in the controversy have organized parades in downtown Charleston complete with flags, balloons, signs, singing, and multitudes of children who love playing hookey!

The decision on the committee report is due out shortly. What the reaction will be is unknown. Suffice it to say that the anti-textbook demonstrators have already indicated that they won't stand for any of the books in controversy being returned to the schoolhouse shelves, and should there be any attempt to do that, "all hell will break loose," to quote one of their leaders.

In the face of such threats, including the threat that all schools will be boycotted and children kept at home, the situation continues electric and frightening. Rumors of revolt are rampant.

Pray, brothers, for peace in Kanawha County.

[Contact Archives for statement by Bishop Atkinson - Ed.]