An essay in Slate by education professor Adam Laats briefly examines the history of conservative “mom” activists in public schools and points out some parallels between today’s Moms for Liberty extremists and their ideological foremothers. It’s eye-opening, but one comforting takeaway is that it usually doesn’t end well for the organizations founded by political operatives masquerading as crusading moms.
Some of the past schoolboard screechers and book banners were familiar to me, like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Others were state-level activists I wasn’t aware of, but it sure seems like Moms for Liberty copy-pasted from their rhetorical playbooks. A few examples from the essay:
In 1963, one DAR member in Mississippi humiliated the group with her violent opposition to a widely used children’s book… (that) told cheerful moral stories about cute baby animals, as when Bobby Squirrel discovered he could get a nut just by asking for one. One local DAR leader, though, accused the book of spreading subversive socialism by teaching children, like Bobby Squirrel, to expect a “collective welfare system.”
(Norma) Gabler had become a national powerhouse in the 1960s by blocking history textbooks and forcing publishers to tell a more conservative story. Though Gabler always called herself just a “Texas homemaker” or “Longview housewife,” she ran a staff of eight, combing through textbook copy to sniff out progressive content.
By the 1970s, Alice Moore…attracted huge support, seemingly overnight… Once on the school board of Kanawha County, West Virginia, Moore ignited a dramatic boycott of a new series of textbooks. She inflamed conservative opinion nationwide by claiming that the books trampled on parents’ rights. Moore warned that the new books would force white kids into feeling guilt and anguish about America’s racism.
Moore’s campaign in particular carries a warning for the Repub political operatives currently doing business as Moms for Liberty. Her campaign spiraled out of control and resulted in a string of assaults, fire-bombings and assassination attempts, which triggered a normie backlash:
Moore disavowed the violence, but she couldn’t escape the fact that her rhetoric had directly caused it. Similarly, when the Ku Klux Klan rolled into town to support the boycott, Moore insisted she had nothing to do with their campaign. She also said she had nothing to do with the burning cross outside the school district’s headquarters in 1975, and it seems very likely she was telling the truth. Yet when the Klan’s local leader articulated his vision for public schools, his language was the same as Moore’s. Just like Alice Moore, the Klan promised to “return patriotism and Christianity to our schools.” They claimed to be joining the national campaign to stop “the breakdown of morals among our children.”
Alice Moore denounced it all, but the damage was done. The boycott—now indelibly associated with the Klan—fizzled. A student march in favor of the controversial books attracted thousands of supporters. The books remained in schools, though parents had to sign a permission slip for a few of the titles.
Laats points out that Moms for Liberty members have allied with militant wingnut goons like the Proud Boys, approvingly quoted Hitler in a chapter newsletter, exposed themselves to mockery with idiotic book ban proposals and have been convicted of harassment for threatening opponents.
As Laats says, this is a recurring phenomenon. But I think it’s especially unfortunate that Repub operatives in Florida ginned up the latest astroturf rebellion to capitalize on political opposition to pandemic safety measures. Learning losses are real, and now the overburdened schools that are trying to claw back progress are saddled with the extra burden of dealing with screaming lunatics at schoolboard meetings.
Laat implies a backlash is inevitable. The only question is how bad things will have to get before public sentiment prompts the extremists to slink back under their rocks. In the Trump era of shock-jock politics, it’s unclear where that floor is.