Dynamite and picket lines: The great textbook debate that forever changed US school boards | CNN


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Editor’s Note: In CNN’s new podcast The Assignment with Audie Cornish, school board officials open up about what motivated them to run and the role they think race and LBGTQ issues should play in schools.



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School board meetings have become ground zero for clashing political movements. Once placid meetings now erupt in chaos with heckling, protests and even death threats.

This divisiveness has been boiling over since the pandemic, but it’s nothing new.

One of the biggest school board debates started in 1974 over textbooks in West Virginia. It spiraled into a boycott and then bombings. This battle created the lasting framework for conservative activism.

The 70s were a tumultuous time in American history with civil rights and women’s rights, and the Vietnam war all in the mix. There was a progressive push to not only integrate classrooms but also to integrate reading lists.

West Virginia approved a new set of textbooks that would modernize its curriculum. Adam Laats, a history professor at Binghamton University, said it featured a diverse range of multicultural writers, including George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver. It also added new literary works at the time, including “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley.

“They really were trying to shake up what they saw as traditional classrooms, but also traditional sort of white man content. They wanted to get more voices,” Laats explained.

Alice Moore, a conservative member of the Kanawha County Board of Education, objected to the books.

“She said, they’re full of anti-American sentiment. They’re full of anti-White racism,” Laats said. “They’re just full of ideas that she thought were really dangerous for kids.”

Despite her concerns, the school board pushed ahead with the new curriculum. But for Moore, a conservative activist, this was the start of the debate – not the end.

Rumors began to fly about the textbooks and groups galvanized. Parents formed grassroots campaigns. Ministers started mobilizing their congregations.

Flyers were passed around claiming the new books promoted reverse racism and criminality, which was untrue. Fake news 1974, if you will.

“There was no Facebook in 1974, but it was a community, like every community, that really cared about what went on in the schools. It doesn’t take long for people to hear rumors – with or without the internet – that can get them, in this case, violently upset about a perceived danger to their kids,” Laats said.

At the next school board meeting, the gymnasium was packed with more than a thousand people. Some stood outside, sticking their heads in the windows to see inside, Laats said.

Boos and cheers filled the room as people took the mic.

“We absolutely refuse to have the liberal point of view pushed upon our children,” one parent said.

“We the parents are the taxpayers. We pay your salary, we elected you to office,” another said.

“In the room, it sure sounded like most people wanted the books out,” Laats said. “That’s not actually a fair estimation of how people in the county felt. But that night, at that meeting, it certainly felt like the people were speaking against the books.”

After three hours of back and forth, the board again voted in favor of the textbooks.

Nearly 10,000 kids stayed home to boycott the books, about 20% of the students, according to National Endowment for the Humanities. Parents created picket lines in front of the schools with signs saying, “I have a bible. I don’t need those dirty books.”

Nazi symbols were graffitied onto school buildings, windows were smashed and people shot at school buses on their way to pick up the students going to school, reported The New York Times.

The Appalachian county, home to many miners, weaponized its most powerful tools. Bombs were planted at three elementary schools and dynamite was thrown into a school board building and an elementary school. Fortunately, no one was injured in any of these incidents, according to American Public Media.

The story drew national attention.

Ultimately, all the books but one were adopted, but in return, Moore created new guidelines for selecting future textbooks – requiring “books encourage loyalty to the United States,” “not encourage sedition or revolution against our government” and “not defame our nation’s founders or misrepresent the ideals and causes for which they struggled and sacrificed,” according to American Public Media.

The 1974 controversy showed the explosiveness of politics, culture and religion colliding in the classroom.

The renewed debate over The 1619 Project and 1776 curriculum show this age-old tendency to turn the classroom into a battlefield is here to stay.

“It’s a fight over who gets to decide what goes on in schools. It’s who gets to decide what goes into magazines. It’s what mainstream America is. It’s who are the ‘real Americans,’” said Laats.



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