BEFORE THERE WAS CRT…
The 1974 textbook war a precursor to the conflict around critical race theory PERVERTING THE CHILDREN
BEFORE THERE WAS CRT… The 1974 textbook war a precursor to the conflict around critical race theory PERVERTING THE CHILDREN
Kit Thornton was ten years old when his father, an evangelical preacher, started attending meetings at a local church about textbooks that were being considered by the board of education in Kanawha County, West Virginia.
“A group of people from outside of the area came in and started showing slideshows to the people in the churches claiming that the textbooks were teaching atheism, godlessness, homosexuality,” Thornton said, “and [with these books] we're going to pervert the children.”
These men, Thornton later found out, worked for The Heritage Foundation – the same organization that, fifty-some years later, would galvanize a conservative movement around the boogeyman of “critical race theory.” The actual theory – a field of legal scholarship that is critical of how liberalism attempts to fix racism – was rebranded by a Heritage Foundation author named Chris Rufo in 2021 in an article he wrote for the organization.
Three months after Rufo introduced CRT to conservatives as the next big thing to corrupt America’s youth, The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells dubbed Rufo “the man who invented the conflict around critical race theory.” Wells, who interviewed Rufo for his story, surmised the rebranding was to shift discussions around anti-racism into terrain more friendly to those whites who opposed the efforts.
But in the 1970s, decades before CRT would dominate political debates across the highest levels of government, conservative organizers took to small-town America hoping to learn how to engineer social uprisings. Using social unrest to effect change had been an effective tool for Democrats who had successfully organized labor unions and shifted US foreign policy away from the war in Vietnam. Republicans, eager to cash in on the tactic, wanted in. According to scholars, West Virginia, with its legacy of miner strikes and penchant for traditionalism, was an ideal place to begin.
For Thorton – a kid growing up in West Virginia at the time – censorship was always part of his home life. His father cut out articles from Newsweek he deemed inappropriate for the rest of the family. If Thorton was caught reading any of it, he was physically abused.
To avoid his father’s wrath, Thornton established a hiding spot in the woods behind his house to consume information his dad wouldn’t approve of. He dubbed a cave in these woods where he would read “Fort Milton” in an homage to John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost – one of the many books his father would not let him have at home.
While physical abuse and censorship were part of his childhood, Thornton said politics weren’t.
“The church that I grew up in, the Southern Baptists, had always had a tradition of keeping politics out of the pulpit. It wasn't considered appropriate to talk about political issues,” he said.
According to Thorton, all of that changed in 1974.
Not long after Thornton's father began attending these meetings at his church, a woman named Alice Moore began popping up in local media outlets echoing some of the same concerns Thorton’s dad had taken home from the meetings. Moore had made a name for herself having successfully lobbied to remove sex education from county schools. Now, she was on the school board. The summer before the 1974 school year began, Moore had shifted her focus to banning books.
Decades before a Texas Republican, running for Attorney General on an anti-CRT platform, compiled a list of 850 books he feared would make students“feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex,” there was Moore. Moore’s list, which contained a meager 325 titles, included books Thorton kept in his cave including Paradise Lost, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other books she called“filthy trash, disgusting, one-sidedly in favor of blacks, and unpatriotic.”
At one school board meeting, Moore responded to a Black person who took issue with her position on banning a book that discussed racism, by telling the attendee the book doesn’t “represent black culture,” adding “it isn’t a fair representation of your culture.” Moore’s comment foreshadowed those made by US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last year when he attempted to explain how CRT (the version defined by the GOP, not by history) goes against Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings.
Thornton, who’s now 57 and has expatriated, said he watched as strict censorship he faced at home was on the verge of becoming school policy. Early in the summer of 1974, he noticed glossy pamphlets discussing the textbooks being circulated throughout town. His father tried to keep them from Thornton. But, along with the copies of books he secured for Fort Milton, he found a way to sneak away with one.
“These quotes on the pamphlets were attributed to literature textbooks that were being approved. And those [pamphlets] were the things that ministers all over the area were pointing at,” he said.
The pamphlets, which were provided by a Texas-based think tank, excerpted college level books, misrepresenting them as quotes from children’s textbooks. Next to the quotes were graphic images of genitalia. A far-reaching network of conservatives were using misinformation to fan the flames of a conflict brewing in a school board. Nearly half a century later, this scene would become a regular occurence.
As the summer winded down, the school board met to decide the fate of its curriculum: the textbook selection committee versus Moore and 12,000 signatures. Her side lost three-to-two. But, the school board decision to approve these books only inspired more action from Moore and the growing number of people demanding to ban books. In September, Thornton, along with 20 percent of the county’s students, didn’t show up for school.
“They decided that they would send us to alternative schools. And, they hastily put these things together in church basements here and there. The first day that I was sent to this alternative school, a man came into the room, slammed an inch thick board down on the desk with a handle carved into it hard enough to make us all jump, and said, ‘This is in case anybody's wondering who the boss is around here,’” Thornton said.
Thornton said he recalls feeling unshaken during this time. Not being at home with his abusive father felt safer than going to this improvised school. Denise Giardina, a young public school teacher in the county at the time, on the other hand was terrified. Giardina had just decided to go into teaching. Now, in her first year, there were angry protesters screaming at her on the way in and out of the building.
As protests ramped up in the following weeks, the Ku Klux Klan and the United Mine Workers of America showed up to join the protesters. One class she taught at the time only had two children in it. Everyone else’s parents were either keeping their children home out of protest or were afraid of what might happen if they sent their kids to school, according to Giardina.
One day, she arrived to find out an empty school bus had been shot up.
“I had to put tape on the hood of my car. We were told to do that so that we could tell if somebody had tampered under the hood. I remember sitting there with those two kids and halfway expecting somebody to throw a Moltov cocktail through the window,” Giardina said.
Within a month of the bus shooting, an elementary school was bombed outside of school hours. A kindergarten classroom was leveled by the blast. County police found dynamite outside another school and the school board building before they could be detonated. Eventually, arrests were made in connection to the bombings. One man, Marvin Horan, was prosecuted on conspiracy charges after it was revealed that he had planned on blowing up a bus full of children.
Giardina said the trauma of watching hordes of angry, racist protestors being met with leniency from officials all came flooding back to her on January 6, 2021.
“That was a real flashback. I’d also get them from watching Trump rallies. The way they’d yell threats at CNN reporters and stuff like that? It’s the same mindset,” she said.
By November, the protests had dwindled down. But, not before Alice Moore was able to get the school board to approve her new guidelines for the future selection of textbooks. One of the adopted guidelines required that textbooks must “recognize the sanctity of the home” and mustn’t “defame our nation’s founders” or “imply that an alien form of government is superior.” Writing an opinion piece nearly five decades after Moore, WV State Senator Eric Tarr deemed CRT both unamerican and “not a West Virginia value.”
According to Carol Mason, a University of Kentucky professor specializing in right-wing movements, many different factions of the American Right underwent transformations because of the textbook controversy. The Heritage Foundation symbolized the rise of the New Right, which saw the advantage of portraying themselves as “regular” people.
“The Old Right was lambasted for being elite. Conservatives like William F. Buckley were seen as Ivy League eggheads. The New Right wanted to change that perception of conservatism and shift their image from blue-blood to blue-collar,” Mason said.
Mason, a West Virginia native, is the author of Reading Appalachia from Left to Right: Conservatives and the 1974 Kanawha County Textbook Controversy. Her book documents how New Right leaders from Washington, DC, not only trained textbook protest organizers in Kanawha County, the leaders learned from the organizers, too. Learning how to enrage rural America, her book argues, would shape conservative organizing efforts for decades to come.
The conflict, according to Mason, was also a turning point for the far right. In a January, 1975, photograph of the Klan gathered to protest the textbook controversy, men in white robes give a Nazi salute to a burning cross. This photo, published by the West Virginia Humanities Commission during the textbook protest in Kanawha County, is “one of the earliest indications of an amalgamation of different kinds of white supremacist groups,” says Mason.
The West Virginia curriculum dispute gave common cause to extremist groups that had not before come together, ultimately resulting in what historians have called the “Nazification of the Klan, the Aryan Nations”, or the white power movement.
“People don’t realize how active influential neo-Nazis were behind the scenes in Kanawha County. George Dietz and William Pierce, both based in West Virginia, used the textbook conflict to recruit,” Mason said.
George Dietz would go on to create the periodical White Power Report, and William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, which was written around the same time as the textbook controversy, became a blueprint for later racist violence such as murders by The Order in the 1980s and the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995.
Mason says the textbook controversy was successful in switching the left-leaning protest culture in West Virginia that favored labor unions to a right-leaning protest culture that was gaining speed. Outside agitators stoked the grassroots.
“There had been a serious history of left-wing protest culture in West Virginia, and the Kanawha County textbook controversy showed the people who were creating the New Right how to shift communities and societies from the left to the right,” she said.
Mason continued to research how the rise of the New Right had created a framework that would ultimately lead to the anti-progressive populist surge that helped elect former president Trump. In a 2011 essay titled “From Textbooks to Tea Parties,” Mason reveals that textbook protesters were courted by outside groups including The Populist Forum and The National Front, groups that networked neo-Nazi organizations with people leading local protests like the one in Kanawha County.
Her book quotes Robert Hoy, co-founder of The Populist Forum, from his 1982 essay, “Lid On a Boiling Pot,” where he reflects on organizing efforts.
“We spent several years trying to channel the energy and resentment of many sporadic uprisings against the establishment into some kind of enduring alliance. Wildcat miners, textbook protesters, despairing farmers, opponents of busing: These and others came under our purview.
We sympathized heartily with the pressing concerns of these grassroots activists, and made it an unvarying point of honor to begin by asking each group, ‘What can we do for you?’” Hoy wrote.
More than just a setting for the textbook controversy, nowhere in the US better illustrates the radical shift from supporting Democrats to Republicans than West Virginia. Once one of the bluest states in the union, it has failed to keep up with the party of the young and educated. Last year, the state lost a congressional seat as a result of its population decline – the most rapid in the nation. And, the state ranks dead-last in the number of people who hold a college degree per capita.
In January of 2021, lawmakers in the Republican supermajority that controls both houses of the West Virginia Legislature introduced two bills to address baseless allegations of critical race theory being taught in schools. At the time, the bills were considered fringe, not even taken up by their respective committees. But in spring of that year, the national dialogue around CRT shifted among conservatives.
A Media Matters report released in June 2021 showed Fox News, the most watched news network in the country, had begun to feature the phrase “critical race theory” thousands of times. Starting in March, the usage more than doubled each month. Days after the report was released, Media Matters counted that by the end of June, the network had featured the word more than 1,900 times in a four-month window.
Rufo’s version of CRT that was being beamed into the collective psyche of conservative America was framed as admonishing “all white people for being oppressors while classifying all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims,” according to a report from Brookings Institute.
Following the deluge of conservative media reports portraying teachers and children as having to publicly prostrate themselves across America for being white, Republican lawmakers across the nation crafted bills to come up with a solution for their own boogeyman: ban the teaching or discussion of racism in schools. By the time the 2022 West Virginia Legislative session rolled around, lawmakers in the state had crafted legislation that had gone a step further.
Educators at all levels (kindergarten to university) could be sued if they were found to have taught material that caused a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race, ethnicity, or biological sex.”
The bill lifted language directly from Florida's “Stop Woke Act,” and applied it specifically to educational settings. The West Virginia version also took a page from Orwell in its nomenclature. “The Anti-Racism Act of 2022” failed on a technicality. Senate President Craig Blair was mid-proclaiming the bill as a law at the stroke of midnight on the last day of session when he ran out of time. The bill, however, is rumored to be back on the agenda in June for an interim session, according to lawmakers interviewed for this story.
Half a mile away and 47 years in the past, the Kanawha County Board of Education Building was the site of a battle that “crystaled” the current strategy being used to drum up panic about CRT, says Mason.
“This time around, right-wing strategists are striving more than ever to paint their work as that of the white working class,” she said.
Despite the GOP’s rebrand, there is no evidence that shows a relationship between income and support for the Republican party. Financially insecure voters, even in the era of Trump, tend to vote for left-wing politicians. The shining light being held up by anti-CRT legislation advocates, according to Anthony Dimaggio, author of the book Rebellion in America, is white supremacy.
“America’s battle over ‘critical race theory’ reminds us of an ugly truth about the enduring white supremacy that’s long defined this country. In a potent racist backlash moment against the rising Black Lives Matter movement, many states have moved in Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ style to entirely ban discussions of structural and institutional racism from K through 12 and college classrooms,” Dimaggio said.
Dimaggio adds that this backlash isn’t confined to the Republican party, citing a 2018 University of Virginia poll which “ revealed that 35 percent of Americans, including 26 percent of Democrats, 29 percent of independents, and 51 percent of Republicans, agreed that ‘America must protect and preserve its White European heritage.’”
According to Mason, waving the “false banner of working party politics” has given Republicans pushing for anti-CRT legislation cover, allowing them to blow an effective and racist dog whistle.
“Attacks on critical race theory hide their agenda to shut down discussions of race. A major component of that effort is convincing the whitest parts of America with the least amount of college education that their nation is under attack from top and bottom: immigrants and People of Color from below, wealthy elites from above,” he said.
“That’s how populism works, by validating people’s sense of vulnerability and stoking their resentment. Populism is about ‘the people’ against presumed parasites. People feel cheated by those they think are unfairly getting ahead, such as immigrants and people on welfare. And they also feel cheated by ‘elites’ who they presume do not actually earn their paychecks.”
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