In the past year, opposition to critical race theory has become a conservative rallying cry at school board meetings across the US. And it recently spurred white voter turnout in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. Critical race theory, an academic discipline that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society, isn’t taught in American public schools, yet white conservatives have turned it into a catch-all phrase for teaching about race and racism.
Rallying parents around concepts that aren’t taught in textbooks isn’t a new political strategy for the American right – it’s a fundamental part of how Republicans have rebranded themselves over the past 50 years, according to Carol Mason, a professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of Reading Appalachia from Left to Right: Conservatives and the 1974 Kanawha County Textbook Controversy. Mason’s book takes readers to small-town West Virginia where a school board meeting on textbook selection quickly escalated into violent protests that saw the Ku Klux Klan marching in the streets, school buses shot up and a kindergarten classroom dynamited. While many of the protesters had no idea what was actually in the books they were protesting against, they had been successfully incited by thinktanks such as the Heritage Foundation, a key source for misinformation on critical race theory today, into violence that captured national media attention.
More importantly, the moment taught conservative power brokers how to successfully co-opt the protest culture of the left to rebrand the right, Mason said in an interview with the Guardian. No longer would the Republican party be the party of eggheads like William F Buckley Jr. Instead it would be loud and in the streets, all while masking white supremacy with working-class values. And nowhere was the ground more fertile than West Virginia, where labor strikes, led predominantly by poor white people, were a daily part of life.
Describe what happened on the ground in West Virginia in 1974.
In April 1974 the Kanawha county board of education gathered for a routine meeting in Charleston. The textbook selection committee dutifully described the books they chose for a new language arts curriculum and their procedures for ensuring that the books met a state-sanctioned mandate to include multi-ethnic and multiracial literature in the new curriculum.
Everyone seemed surprised when an objection came from the only female board member, Alice Moore, who after moving to West Virginia from Mississippi several years earlier had campaigned to join the board on an anti-sex education platform. Moore succeeded in delaying but not stopping the purchase of the curriculum. Throughout the spring and summer, thousands of protesters mobilized, objecting to the books as well to as the board’s selection process. At a board of education hearing on 27 June 1974, more than 1,000 citizens showed up to debate the new textbooks. After listening to them for nearly three hours, the school board voted 3-2 to purchase the books.
Protesters felt ignored by the board’s June decision to purchase the curriculum and kept mobilizing Kanawha county residents throughout the summer. When the academic year began in the fall, organized protests increased, including sympathy strikes by coalminers. In October and November, tensions were so high that members of both sides of the controversy issued threats and committed acts of violence. In January 1975, Ku Klux Klan leaders made a media splash on the West Virginia capitol steps and legal hearings regarding October bombings of schools began. When spring came, the coal strikes were over, the big rallies were gone, and the books were in the classrooms.
What political organizations were involved in the protests?
The textbook controversy drew from a rich array of conservative, populist and even revolutionary concepts expressed by organizations including John Birch Society, Citizen Councils, the American Party, the Ku Klux Klan, the Heritage Foundation, National Alliance and the Christian Crusade. The Heritage Foundation’s involvement was especially influential for later politics.
What impact has this event had on conservative efforts to thwart public education in America?
Examining how stakeholders in the 1974 textbook controversy changed their arguments during and because of that protest shows how conservatives shifted away from an old-right anti-communist stance that denounced educational reforms as Stalinist conspiracies to brainwash students or as sinister Black Power attempts to convert them into revolutionary militancy. That old-right rhetoric against public education was prominent in the beginning of the textbook controversy and was exemplified by Gordon Drake’s 1968 Blackboard Power, which was published by the same organization that spearheaded earlier anti–sex education campaigns, hosted Alice Moore for a speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and fundraised in the name of supporting West Virginia protesters.
But by 1975, the publicly prevailing arguments against the books were not about race or communism explicitly. The later arguments were framed more as a populist matter of protecting “our heritage” and “our children”, who were purportedly at the mercy of a new bogeyman called secular humanism promoted by elitist educators who shouldn’t be allowed to tell parents what their kids learn. This stance was solidified for a national audience by Heritage Foundation strategist Connie Marshner, who wrote up the lessons she learned from West Virginia in a book called Blackboard Tyranny, which was a call to arms as well as a how-to handbook for parents so that they would back off from John Birch Society–style conspiracism and focus on effecting political change at the local level.
What were lasting political impacts for the Republican party?
For the burgeoning new right that was fashioning the Republican party as one of cultural conservatism, the textbook controversy marked a shift from playing the race card, so to speak, to playing the mommy card. Scholars such as Jean Hardisty, Michelle Nickerson and Lisa McGirr have shown how women in the 1950s and 60s were highly effective organizers who shaped the postwar right. These “kitchen table activists”, “housewife populists” and “suburban warriors” were indeed “mothers of conservatism” whose behind-the-scenes letter and voter registration campaigns bolstered the conservative movement.
Racial identity was a fundamental issue for conservatives emerging from the civil rights era, as Connie Marshner makes clear in her explanation of why to care about school curricula in the first place. “Ours is an age of neo-ethnicity,” she wrote. “Blacks are proud to be blacks, and want their public education system to foster that pride in their offspring; Chicanos want Chicano language, customs and attitudes taught to their children. Middle-class whites do not agitate for ‘white studies’ courses; the equivalent demand is for traditional American and Christian values,” she wrote. For Marshner and the new right, traditional American and Christian values equaled the “neo-ethnicity” of whiteness without calling it white. This, then, is one of the West Virginia textbook conflict’s legacies for the Republican party. It taught them how to fight against inclusive, culturally diverse and multi-ethnic education without saying you are fighting for a white-oriented, white-dominated and white-privileging curriculum.
What about other legacies for rightwing America?
For the far right, the 1974 textbook controversy brought together neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members in a way they hadn’t been in the 1960s. Several years before the birth of Aryan Nations, the textbook controversy gave common cause to competing Klan factions and neo-Nazi groups. It was an occasion for them to collaborate, to hash out whether Jews or Blacks were the white man’s more powerful enemy, and to recruit kindred spirits into populist campaigns, such as the Boston anti-busing protests, and into an emerging paramilitary white power movement. Indeed, one local West Virginian, a German immigrant and publisher of rightwing materials that circulated far-right arguments against the textbooks during the controversy, went on to launch the White Power Report and to create the first white supremacist electronic bulletin board. His involvement with the textbook controversy coincided with his decision to leave the John Birch Society and launch more overtly white supremacist ventures.
As historian Kathleen Belew has shown, militant white supremacists were gaining momentum in the 1970s. Those writing about, living through and recruiting in the West Virginia textbook controversy were of no small significance to the growing white power movement.
What political ground do conservatives win by going after public education?
The textbook controversy demonstrated how to use campaigns against education to shift political dissent from the left to the right, from blue to red, from progressive to conservative causes. At the beginning of the 1970s, the protest culture in West Virginia and Appalachia generally was leftist as workers organized against energy conglomerations. Say “protesters” in the early 1970s and you thought of labor unions fighting corporations for better wages and safety measures on the job and for the community. The 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster, in which more than a 100m gallons of surging black slurry waste decimated coal towns along a southern West Virginia hollow, killed 125, injured over 1,000, and left 4,000 people homeless.
The 1974 Kanawha county textbook controversy demonstrated how a moral panic over education could turn protest ire and populist rage in favor of rightwing causes. It showed conservatives, who throughout the 1960s had been seen as aloof elitists like William F Buckley, how going after public education could channel actual working-class discontent to their side and change their image from blue blood to blue collar.
Why are we seeing resistance to discussions of race in public schools today?
It is tempting to draw a bright, direct line from the Heritage Foundation’s early years and their involvement in the textbook controversy to their central role today in creating a moral panic over critical race theory. In both instances, then and now, the Heritage Foundation put in a concerted effort to fan the flames of discontent by offering legal help to local dissenters and shaping the message about some supposedly poisonous school curriculum. While such actions are certainly consistent, to point only to the Heritage Foundation as the villain of this story misses opportunities for more nuanced analysis.
The push to thwart discussions of race in public schools is clearly a backlash against the movement for Black lives, calls for reform of racist policing practices and personnel and campaigns to remove statuary celebrating white supremacism from the American public sphere. Offering the bogeyman of critical race theory as explanation for Black Lives Matter protests and related actions suggests there is a magic bullet for ending legitimate protests against racial profiling, white supremacist terror, and structural inequalities built into the criminal justice system.
Any last thoughts on what the textbook controversy can teach us?
Most US residents are anticipating with dread or hope the election year of 2024. I have no doubt that the West Virginia textbook controversy will be resurrected in service to politics as its 50th anniversary is commemorated and analyzed the same year. To understand the extent to which the textbook war of 1974 is a precursor to current and recent populist protests, it is imperative to address multiple influences and not to fall into old stereotypes about Appalachians, such as their supposed inherent violence, intolerance and hillbilly penchant for feuding. Equally important is to avoid more romantic stereotypes that glorify Appalachians as noble frontiersmen and courageous resisters to modern corruptions.
In 1974 a multi-ethnic language arts curriculum was offered up as the corruption to be fought. In 2024 the supposed corruptions will have multiplied. And this time, as opposed to the 1960s and 70s when white poverty was seen as something that could be addressed with social programs, rural white poverty is now pathologized much as Black urban poverty was before: as a matter of laziness and improper family formations. Rightwing forces – from mainstream conservatives to militant insurrectionists – again are in a state of transition and, if the textbook controversy was any harbinger of what works for rightwing America – they will surely use moral panics over education and conflicts in Appalachia to their advantage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity