When The Klan Came To Town

August 14th, 2017  |   

When the Ku Klux Klan showed up in Charleston, I wasn’t at home. 

It was 1975 and Kanawha County was in the midst of what came to be called, the Kanawha County Textbook War. Thousands of language arts textbooks had been taken out of the schools, people had been threatened, school buses shot at, schools bombed, and board of education members attacked.

I was in Martinsburg visiting friends and got a call from Judy. She was disturbed. Threatening phone calls had come to the house. They were precipitated by the arrival of the Klan. The Kleagle from Ohio was coming to Charleston, and the callers wanted me to come to a rally on the steps of he Capitol. 

It didn’t take me long to get into my car and head for home. That encounter resulted in ugly phone calls, and the arrest of a man who threatened me with the same fate of the three civil rights workers who had been murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

The books were removed from the schools because they were the first K-12 multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial textbooks adopted in West Virginia. A sign on a viaduct read, “GET THE N- - - - - BOOKS OUT.

My role in all of this was twofold. I was disturbed by the fact that my children’s books were taken from them, a real no-no for me, given my love for books. On top of that, students and community folks asked me to help take a lead in getting the books back in the classrooms. 

Watching the Klan, and what is being called the Alt-Right, engaged in violence this past weekend in Charlottesville transported me back to those days in Kanawha County. That period of history, the early half of the 1970s not only resembles the situation now, it was that period when the political and religious right were gearing up for the eventually appearance of Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump.

Judy accompanied me through many struggles, but the Klan encounter cut through her like a knife. A few years later, both of us went to Atlanta to look at a job possibility. When we got off the plane, I picked up a copy of The Atlanta Constitution. On the front page was an article about a local Klan appearance. I saw Judy’s reaction as she remembered the Klan’s visit to Charleston. She was pleased to come back home to West Virginia, but neither one of us had any illusion that racism would not ever raise its ugly head again. Racism is America’s original sin, always in need of being exorcised.

One last note: Tomorrow morning at 5:45, I will climb onto a garbage truck here in Charleston and go to work in the East End, my neighborhood. It’s my community service for having done civil disobedience in WV Senator Capito’s office. The issue was her vacillation and eventual disappointing vote to do away with the Affordable Care Act.

I rode the truck 10 years ago when the then Rep. Capito gave initial and continuing support for the Iraq war. If asked why I am riding the truck again, I will say that I like working with these marvelous folks who do this important job. For me it will be indicative of the huge piece of work necessary to clean up Washington, and the WV Legislature (also in the East End). So, I will start on the ground where I live.

Add comment August 14th, 2017

A Trip To 1776 With A Stop In West Virginia

July 4th, 2017  |   

The Fourth of July is my ticket back to 1776. Getting there, however, I must pass through 1976. You might find that trip interesting, so travel with me. We’ll stop here in Charleston, West Virginia.

Judy and I, along with our four children arrived here in August 1974. We’d come from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where I spent the summer writing a book, before becoming the minister at St. John’s Episcopal Church. When school began, all hell broke loose in our new hometown, as a countywide battle raged over recently adopted kindergarten through high school language arts textbooks. The battle, on more than one occasion, turned violent when shots rang out and schools were bombed.

Today is no day to delve into what is now labeled, The Kanawha County Textbook War.

All that need be said, from my vantage point, is that by 1976 the struggle still persisted when new history textbooks were introduced. Having played my part in the battle, which included threats from opponents, including the Ku Klux Klan, and police protection for my family and me, friends advised me to take time for some fun.

I had never taken part in a musical, but what the heck, I showed up at the Charleston Light Opera Guild tryouts for the play, “1776.” Judy, so very musical, had stacks of printed music, but that wasn’t any help. I don’t read music, so I took a hymnbook to the tryouts and sang, “O Come O Come Emanuel.” Tom Murphy, then the director of the Guild, and who became a dear friend, gave me a puzzled look, and a choice comment when I sang the last verse. “What the hell is this, a religious revival?”

That’s how I got the part of Thomas Jefferson, died my hair red, and fell in love with the marvelous cast, and this musical rendition of the events surrounding the Declaration of Independence. Daughter Elizabeth accompanied me to every rehearsal as I totally submerged myself in this delightful play. Aside from the performances, the cast performed at the 1976 bicentennial celebration on the city dock in downtown Charleston. Today, thinking about the performances back then, I listened to some of the music.

The play is fun, serious, light, heavy, sexual, spiritual, giddy, and ominous. In other words, a potpourri of Americana, for better or for worse, with all that was included in our history, and all that was ignored.

Listen to one of the songs from the film version, “The Egg,” in which Jefferson, Adams and Franklin argue about which bird should symbolize the new nation—a turkey, dove or eagle. Contemplating the birth of our country as the hatching of an egg, hear Jefferson say, “If only we could be sure of what kind of a bird it’s going to be.”


Here we are, 241 years later, asking that question, as we must do every Independence Day: What kind of a nation are we going to be? Perhaps Adams, Franklin and Jefferson, joining their voices at the very end of the song, point us in the right direction.

“The eagle inside belongs to us.” That’s right, don’t you think? Not a king or a president, a dictator or a demigod—all of us—we the people.  

Add comment July 4th, 2017

Remembering June 14

June 13th, 2017  |   

It’s June 13th, and I am alone in a motel in Bloomington, IL, on my way back to Charleston. I have been on the road for almost two weeks.

I have been spending grandfather-granddaughter time. You see, I drove to Asheville, NC, to perform the wedding ceremony for Granddaughter Katherine, and then went on to Minneapolis for Granddaughter Eva’s high school graduation.

Tomorrow is June 14th, the last leg of my trip home. It is also an anniversary date linked to June 14, 1958, the day Judy and I were married.

I can’t help but smile when I think that these two granddaughter’s I have been with, and their mothers, and the entire Lewis family, would not have been around, if Judy and I had not been married fifty-nine years ago.

On top of that, I have to laugh out loud every time I tell someone the rather amusing way Judy and I met.

In 1954, both of us were college freshman, and seven men were paired up with seven women for a big blind date night. The woman who arranged the evening was responsible for deciding the pairing. As Judy would tell it, this woman was actually practically blind. Almost nose to nose with Judy, she said, “I think you would be good for Jim.”

Two weeks after Judy and I were married, we found ourselves in Quantico, Virginia. Leaving Judy in a nearby motel, I reported for basic training, with an eventual deployment to Southeast Asia as a infantry platoon commander. As I think about the precarious state of the world back then, there is a stunning similarity to what is taking place today.

While driving tomorrow, I intend to stay away from radio news. There will be plenty of time for that when I get back to my routines at home. While driving today, I listened to Jeff Sessions ramble on about what he can’t recall. Tomorrow, I will listen to music and think about that wedding 59 years ago, and certainly feel grateful for that woman with poor vision who somehow could see which woman would be good for me.

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Nations will hammer swords into plows, their spears into sickles, there shall be no more training for war. Each person will sit under his or her fig tree in peace.
Micah 4:3 - 4