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Backlash

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Liberal advances can trigger conservative counterattacks. That's what struck my town of Charleston, West Virginia, in 1974. A violent fundamentalist uprising against "godless textbooks" brought bombings, shootings and raging brawls, sending "religious right" preachers to jail and prison.

It happened in a period when religious conservatives were fighting back against the liberal upheaval of the turbulent 1960s. That upheaval included a rise of multiculturalism and inclusion of more minority voices alongside those of the white majority. Eventually, school textbooks were revised to include minority concerns, which hadn't received much attention previously. This triggered an Appalachian evangelical backlash.

Rock-throwing mobs forced schools to close. Two schools and the board of education office were bombed. Two people were shot. Coal miners struck to support the religious protest. Ku Klux Klansmen and right-wing kooks flocked to Charleston. Some residents tried to form a separate county. A preacher and his followers discussed murdering families who wouldn't join a school boycott. The minister finally went to prison.

During this nightmare, Charleston acquired a national image somewhat like Dayton, Tennessee, home of the "Scopes monkey trial," the 1925 clash over evolution.

Ironically, the whole Kanawha County insurrection was pointless, because the schoolbooks were just routine texts. Their sins existed only in the fevered imagination of the zealots.

The uprising began when the Reverend Charles Meadows went before the legislature in 1969 to demand a return of the death penalty. He testified that he would "be glad to pull the switch myself" at executions.

Then he attacked sex education in Kanawha schools. He rented an arena and invited "Bible-believing Christians" to a rally against the "pornography" of sex education. Committees were formed. A movement grew.

Alice Moore, wife of a born-again pastor, became the movement's candidate for the school board in 1970. She said sex education was part of a "humanistic, atheistic attack on God." Church groups poured money into her campaign. She won and became the board's ayatollah, supporting Bibles for students and expulsion of pregnant girls.

Moore's moralizing had minor effect until 1974, when new textbooks were up for adoption. She denounced the books as "godless," citing chapters and passages featuring minority dissidents. A protest grew. Twenty-seven fundamentalist clergymen called the texts "immoral and indecent." (Rascals like me hunted for indecency in the books, but found only ordinary school topics.)

On the night of the adoption vote, a thousand protesters surrounded the board office. Despite this menace, members voted three-to-two for the books. Afterward, a group called Christian American Parents picketed stores owned by approving board members.

When school opened, evangelists urged "true Christians" to keep their children home. Attendance fell twenty percent - more so in the poor eastern end of the county. The Rev. Marvin Horan led a rally of two thousand protesters. Mobs surrounded schools and blockaded school bus garages. Teachers were threatened. So were families who didn't join the boycott.

During a school board meeting, several beefy protesters moved to the front of the chamber, surrounded board members, and shouted "Jew-lover, n-word-lover, Hitler-lover." They beat the school superintendent and three board members before order was restored.

About 3,500 coal miners went on strike against the texts, and began picketing Charleston industries. Flying rocks, screams and danger were constant. Frightened people in eastern Kanawha began carrying pistols. Many school buses couldn't run -- and then textbook pickets halted city buses, leaving eleven thousand low-income Kanawha Valley people without transportation.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)
 

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