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Millionaire evangelists like Pat Robertson call for America's 50 million fundamentalists to become a mighty political force and reshape society to their liking. Well, we'd better pray that their effort doesn't turn out like a famous West Virginia example - the 1974 evangelical war against "godless textbooks".
Rock-throwing mobs forced schools to close. Two schools and the board 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, my city of Charleston acquired a national image somewhat like Dayton, Tenn., home of the "Scopes monkey trial," the 1925 clash over evolution.
Ironically, the whole 1974 insurrection was pointless, because the school books were just routine texts. Their sins existed only in the fevered imagination of the zealots.
The upheaval was rooted in the period when religious conservatives rebelled against liberal excesses of the 1960s. The first to jump into the limelight was the Rev. Charles Meadows, who went before the Legislature 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 public 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 an evangelical 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 irreligious, and a protest grew. A group of 27 born-again 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, 1,000 protesters surrounded the board office. Despite this menace, members voted 3-2 for the books. Afterward, a group called Christian American Parents picketed a store chain because its president, a board member, had voted yes.
When school opened, evangelists urged "true Christians" to keep their children home. Attendance fell 20 percent more so in the poor end of the county. The Rev. Marvin Horan led a rally of 2,000 protesters. Mobs surrounded schools and blockaded school bus garages. Teachers were threatened. So were families who didn't join the boycott.
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 began carrying pistols. Many school buses couldn't run - and then textbook pickets halted city buses, leaving 11,000 low-income people without transportation.
Pickets surrounded a truck terminal, and a terminal janitor fired a shot which wounded one. Other pickets beat the janitor savagely. The next day, an armed man panicked when pickets surged toward him. He fired a shot that wounded a bystander. Two book protesters were jailed for smashing windshields.
The school board got a court injunction against disrupters, but it didn't help. Finally the superintendent closed schools, saying the safety of children couldn't be guaranteed. Schools also closed in nearby counties.
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