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Why the Virginia School Fight Might Just Be the Beginning

Leave it to the number crunchers to determine what happened in Virginia this week. But for those Democrats and Republicans who believe school wars were at the center of the story, history suggests that Tuesday was just the opening salvo in what may prove a long and protracted cultural contest.

Almost from the very inception of “common” or public schools in the United States, education has served as a focal point for broader debates over culture and politics. In the mid-19th century, Catholic religious officials like New York’s Bishop John Hughes — “Dagger John,” as he was popularly known — called for a complete divorce between the city’s Catholic population and the common school system, when it became clear in 1840 that the church would be barred from enjoying funds allotted by the state’s public school act, and that the Protestant-leaning board administering common schools intended to use its influence to proselytize among Catholic youth (among other methods, it employed the Anglican King James Bible in schools). Tapping into a powerful reserve of ethnic resentment, Hughes told his flock that “[w]e are in the same situation as they were in Ireland from the Kildare Street Society, where for years they tried the fidelity of those who never were recreant to their faith.” Three decades later, in 1870, 68 percent of all city parishes operated their own parochial elementary schools, which were attended by 19 percent of New York’s school aged population.

New York’s school wars presaged national debates over immigration and nativism in the 1850s, as Catholic immigrants sought to construct a sprawling array of parallel institutions — schools, fraternal organizations, hospitals, even sports leagues — in the face of condescension, discrimination and proselytization by native-born Protestants. Schools operated as a focal point in the debate over who was and who was not American.

In much the same way, debates over segregation in American public schools served as a powerful proxy for broader arguments about race relations from the 1950s through the 1970s. The NAACP trained its sites on school desegregation in the late 1940s, knowing full well that the issue would excite the passions of white politicians and parents. W.E.B. DuBois mused that “theoretically the Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is education.” But schools represented an opportunity to break an entire generation of children, both black and white, of long-established patterns of racial thinking. White opponents certainly understood the stakes. In an article in 1956, Herbert Ravenel Sass, a prominent South Carolinian, called the South the “great bulwark against intermarriage” and conjectured that “a very few years of thoroughly integrated schools would produce larger numbers of indoctrinated young Southerners free from all ‘prejudice’ against mixed matings.” (This was, in his thinking, something to be feared.)

In the same way, political wars over school busing in the 1970s were about much more than who attended which schools. In an era of economic stagnation, cultural liberalization and demographic change, busing came to represent competition over jobs, neighborhoods, religion, culture and local political power.

Few people gave sharper expression to this range of social unrest than antibusing leader John Kerrigan, a former hospital orderly in Boston who worked his way through law school and joined the School Committee in 1967. Kerrigan complained that “in these days of liberalization of civil rights, government has made continued concessions to convicted felons, homosexuals, abortionists, and others, yet persists in ignoring the pleas of parents who ask that they be accorded their rightful privilege of sending their children to their own neighborhood schools.” It wasn’t always clear whether Kerrigan’s chief concerns were busing and school desegregation or the more general unraveling of long-held social mores.

School wars haven’t simply been representative of larger cultural and political unrest. As was the case with debates about religion in the 1840s, they have sometimes been the tip of the spear— a local dispute that portends a shift in national politics. This was certainly the case in the development of the modern conservative movement after World War II.

In late 1960, conservative activists in Orange County, California, began frequenting meetings of the Magnolia School District Board of Education, out of concern that Joel Dvorman, an elected board member and activist with the American Civil Liberties Union, was an “identified communist” and bent on converting local students to a radical, revolutionary ideology. They disrupted public meetings, demanding to know whether Dvorman had “ever been a member of the Communist Party,” and held a series of talks on “Goals and Techniques of World Communism.” One activist later remarked, “Having heard many derogatory things about the ACLU, and being mildly curious about what an identified communist might have to say, I was very upset to find this thing going on in our neighborhood.”

Conservative activists organized in church basements and at coffee klatches at each other’s homes and, in 1961, successfully removed Dvorman and two other board members in a special recall election. The newly installed board members quickly adopted a new “American heritage program” designed to “promote a deep devotion to the American Way of Life,” and began sending students home with bulletins and flyers that brazenly promoted a fundamentalist Christian point of view. One piece of literature, titled “The Meaning of Christmas,” argued that the “world is in a state of confusion, turmoil and crisis … divided between two ideologies striving to capture the mind, the heart, and the very soul of mankind.” When schools adopted a “philosophy that is atheistic and denies the existence of a divine being,” they exposed children to a dangerous ideology. “There is one … eternal truth,” the pamphlet concluded. “‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

It’s easy, in hindsight, to dismiss such examples as fringe. But historians generally regard grassroots activism in postwar Orange County as the incubator for modern conservatism. It was where ardent anticommunists and free market advocates found common cause with Christian moralists in what became the prototype for the New Right. Within a few short years, what began in Southern California grew into a national movement that reshaped the Republican Party and, ultimately, American politics. Its first focus was schools. And that was not an isolated phenomenon.

Fast forward to 1970. That year, in Kanawha County, West Virginia, Alice Moore, the wife of a fundamentalist preacher and mother of four young children, won election to the school board after waging a campaign against the Board of Education’s new sex education program. After succeeding in her effort to water down the curriculum, in 1974 Moore trained her sites on the district’s literature textbooks, after concluding that many items on the approved classroom reading list were licentious and anti-Christian. To prove her point, she staged public readings of one such work, e. e. cummings’ poem, “I Like My Body,” which included such suggestive lines as, “kissing this and that of you … slowly stroking the shocking fuzz of your electric fur.” Moore also cited works by James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver as “full of negative references to Christianity and God,” denouncing them as rife with “profanity and anti-American and racist anti-white stories.” Taking particular exception to an elementary school textbook that likened the story of Daniel to Aesop’s fables, she demanded that the Board of Education expunge the offending volumes from the curriculum. When her colleagues failed to oblige, Moore called for a school boycott. That she was borrowing a page from the civil rights movement’s direct-action playbook apparently seemed to elude her entirely.

With local preachers like the Rev. Marvin Horan warning parents that “if we don’t protect our children from evil we’ll have to go to hell from it,” some 20 percent of students skipped classes during the first week of the 1974-75 school year. Adults picketed the city’s transportation depots in violation of court orders, vandalized yellow school buses and bombed two empty schools in unknowing imitation of the same urban violence they decried in the works of Baldwin and Cleaver. “We’re going to close down all the schools until the un-American, un-Christian, vulgar, filthy, trashy books are banned,” the Rev. Charles Quigley promised. Calling on his followers to “pray that God will kill the giants who have mocked and made fun of the dumb fundamentalists,” Quigley fanned the fames of religious rage. “We are going to continue picketing if they throw everyone into the county jail,” he warned. “These are parents who love their children and will fight until death, if necessary.”

After the school board approved a compromise measure that permitted parents to excuse their children from reading specific texts they might find objectionable, hard-line protesters — with many beleaguered coal miners and truckers prominent among their ranks — stepped up their campaign. Some 2,000 Christian conservatives marched through Charleston in December, while renegade activists fired shots at classrooms and buses and threatened physical harm to parents did not comply with the boycott. The climate only cooled in April 1975 when Horan was sentenced to three years in prison for conspiring to firebomb a school building.

In the aftermath of the Kanawha textbook wars, the conservative Heritage Foundation funded a new outlet, the National Congress for Educational Excellence, that brought over 200 local groups across the nation under one umbrella to force a return to traditionalism in school curricula. Importantly, the head of the Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich, was a Catholic, as were many of the organization’s leading members. The willingness of Southern evangelicals to work closely with a devout Catholic in promoting Christian values signaled the start a new, ecumenical alliance of religious traditionalists.

The brouhaha in Kanawha was not a case of national politics expressing itself at the local level. Instead, the county’s school textbook wars were a first shot in a larger contest that would subsume national politics over the following two decades. America had changed a great deal over the prior decade. Where conservatives in Orange County in 1960 may not immediately have gained national traction, the liberalization of attitudes toward sex, women’s and LGBTQ rights and race paved the way for a broader national discussion. The movement that grew out of Kanawha was a prototype for the Religious Right’s exercise of political power.

The jury is still out on the meaning of this week’s election in Virginia. To be sure, concerns over transgender rights, critical race theory, masking and vaccine mandates and school governance didn’t begin and won’t end in Loudoun County. Some of these conversations began at the national level and have filtered their way down locally. But the symbolic resonance and expressive power of school policy — the way in which education wars have crystallized this particular array of diverse social issues and concerns — has powerful precedent.

Much as the Kanawha school imbroglio of 1970 presaged the emergence of a potent political movement and helped establish the terms of debate for years to come, the Virginia election may introduce a new political landscape — one whose history has not yet been written.

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