"Was this a story that you'd been just dying to tell for a long time?" a Peabody Award board member asked me when I attended their honoree ceremony in May 2010. She went on to say, "This was my strong feeling when I heard your piece." It thrilled me that she felt this way after hearing my radio documentary, The Great Textbook War. She was right. I'd wanted to tell this story for a long time.
But I wasn't sure a national audience would want to hear it. Those of us who lived through the skirmish over "dirty nasty" textbooks thought it was a big deal. How could we think otherwise with Walter Cronkite and other news anchors telling the nation about it night after night back in the fall of 1974? But would the story matter to anyone now?
Then I came across an article that characterized the West Virginia textbook controversy as "the first shot of the culture wars."
"Quite a provocative statement," I thought. And I wondered whether the story of what happened in Kanawha County in 1974 might be a way to explore the roots of the current culture divide between "red" and "blue" America.
As I was thinking these things, the 2008 presidential election was playing out. I knew I was onto something when folks from West Virginia kept saying things like: "When I first saw Sarah Palin, I thought, 'Alice Moore is back!'" (Alice Moore is the conservative school board member who started the protest against the textbooks in 1974.) And I thought I might be in a unique position to explore today's culture wars by going back to my past. To do this, I would have to travel back and forth (literally and metaphorically) from my new home in mostly liberal, secular New York to conservative, middle-of-the-Bible-belt West Virginia. But that wasn't the only journey I'd have to make. I would also have to bridge the gap between "the Hill" and "the Creek."
Back in 1974, I was a "Hiller." My family lived in the South Hills part of Charleston, which the locals refer to as "The Hill." This is where doctors and lawyers lived, mostly college-educated people, some native West Virginians and others who had moved to the state. Being a Hiller meant you were relatively wealthy and affluent compared to other people in Kanawha County, who were referred to as "Creekers." The Creekers lived in communities situated in hollows along small mountain creeks. These were working-class families that earned their living from mining coal or laboring in chemical factories. Folks from the Creek came from families who'd lived in West Virginia for generations. Few if any of them had gone to college.
For the most part, Hillers and Creekers went to separate schools. I attended a high school that pretty much defined the term "Hiller." Our team jerseys said, "The Hill." As an athlete, I remember hearing opponents mutter under their breath, "Let's kick them rich kids' asses." Sometimes parents and students would shout from the bleachers, "Kill the Hill!"
That's how the Creekers saw us. We saw them as rednecks - unrefined and uneducated. We laughed at their "hicky" accents and the discount store clothes they wore. We even ridiculed their fundamentalist Christian beliefs as silly and quaint.
I realized that to tell this story, I was going to have to address my own Creeker stereotypes, while also confronting their perceptions of me.
One of the interviews I knew I needed for this documentary was with former school board member Alice Moore. Although she wasn't a Creeker (she'd grown up in Tennessee and moved to the area with her preacher husband), she was the face of the book protest. In my mind, she was a "witch on a broom" because someone drew her that way once in a cartoon. She inspired vitriol among the people I knew. Some teachers at my high school would get red-faced with anger at the mention of her name.
I remember my knees shaking when I first phoned Moore. One reason - I really needed the interview. And I thought she might refuse to talk, just hang up on me, a former Hiller and now a "liberal from New York." But perhaps the real reason for my wobbly knees was because I remember fundamentalists like Moore talking about the "end of days" and "getting right with the Lord." I imagined sitting silent on the phone, listening to a rapid-fire sermon filled with Bible citations and being told that my soul was going to burn in Hell. Thank goodness that didn't happen.
If it had happened, I might have shut down, stopped listening and classified her as a conservative religious nut. But after speaking with Moore, it's clear to me that she is much more than a predictable, cartoon reduction of a "Bible banger." I disagree with her on many things, but I've come to understand her point of view on the textbooks. She believes parents have a right to not have their children influenced by ideas they don't agree with. And they shouldn't have to give up their authority in this area to education professionals. And that makes sense to me. She believed ideas discussed in the books were an assault on her core beliefs, and that's why she took a stand.
Then I thought, "I have core beliefs, what if I felt those beliefs were under attack?" I would stand up and fight too. From that moment on, I felt more empathy than antipathy for Alice Moore and the other protesters.
As I worked on this project, I can't tell you how many times people said to me, "I don't understand how you can talk to those people!" But Moore isn't one of "those people" to me anymore. We still talk, often about hot-button topics like abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state and gay marriage. And when we do speak, the tone is respectful. We listen to each other's point of view. It's such a different tone from what I hear on The Rush Limbaugh Show for example. Limbaugh seems to have little or no respect for people who hold views that differ from his. I don't feel that way when I speak with Moore. She shares many of Limbaugh's opinions, but when we talk, she seems to be genuinely interested in learning and not interested in using me as a token liberal punching bag. There is no question that from her I have learned a tremendous amount about the passion that drives conservative Christians.
Back in 1974, during the Kanawha textbook war, each side was so fortified with anger that it was impossible to have a respectful discussion about the issues. When it was over, nothing was really resolved. Each side went back to its respective place, to the Hill or to the Creek. We processed what happened with like-minded people, satisfied that our point of view was pure and right.
This is not so different from how the political discourse seems to be playing out today. Each side surrounds itself in safe, ideological echo chambers. We seldom risk engaging with the "other side." For me, getting to know Moore and the other protesters gave me an opportunity to step outside my own "echo chamber." I find this refreshing.
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