‘It started as a lie’: Locals push back against Moms for Liberty in NC

Demonstrators from Moms for Liberty hold protest signs on the roof of the North Carolina Legislative Building, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C. The state legislature's Republican supermajority will attempt later Wednesday to override the Democratic governor's veto of a gender-affirming care ban for minors. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

By Billy Ball

December 7, 2023

Moms for Liberty—an organization labeled “extremists” by the Southern Poverty Law Center—had a dismal 2023 election, including in NC. Will 2024 be even worse for them? 

Local school board meetings can be dry. Sometimes, they’re corny. They can even be cute when the kids get to talk. But they’re not often ugly. A meeting this week in New Hanover County—county seat: Wilmington—was ugly.

During one memorable moment, one board member practically spat at another for interrupting her: “Poo!” Meaning “point of order.” 

“Oh my God!” she added in frustration.

Earlier in the meeting, Nevin Carr, the head of the local GOP, snarled at Superintendent Charles Foust that he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children. Carr also sarcastically asked for a “moment of silence” for all the Americans who died for Foust’s rights.

It’s not clear what his point was. But Carr is a white man. Foust is Black, and the school system he leads had begun efforts to consider equity and diversity issues in earnest in recent years. 

Meetings have been like this for some time here and in other places across the country where the right-wing group Moms for Liberty holds sway. In February, the Proud Boys—a right-wing hate group with a violent agenda—showed up to cheer on a new board policy barring trans kids from participating in school sports matching their gender identity. It was authored by board members affiliated with Moms for Liberty. 

Moms for Liberty, which has ties to white supremacists, began out of pushback to public health requirements like masking and life-saving vaccines during the pandemic. Since then, their agenda’s expanded with their reach, targeting what they call “woke” curriculum concerning racial injustice and LGBTQ+ inclusivity.  

New Hanover County GOP Chair Nevin Carr at the local school board meeting in December 2023. The GOP, and its Moms for Liberty-affiliated school board members, have been mired in controversy since taking over the school board in 2022. (Screenshot via New Hanover County’s YouTube)

Once considered a small movement in Florida, they began winning school board races across the country, including in NC, where they stunned locals by taking the majority on the New Hanover County school board in 2022. 

This week, that same majority dissolved an internal committee that advised them on diversity and equity, characterizing the initiative as inefficient and pointless. 

And in September, board members removed the book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” from classrooms. It’s based on the 2016 book “Stamped From the Beginning,” a history book on racist policies, laws, and systems that won a National Book Award for nonfiction. 

The move to ban books about racial injustice is especially loaded in Wilmington, the site of the “Wilmington Massacre,” a white supremacist takeover of local government in 1898 that preceded the “Jim Crow” era in the South, and empowered generations of conservative leaders in NC. 

@cardinalandpine

WATCH: Sometimes the bad guys win. Here’s what happened to the white supremacists who incited the Wilmington Massacre in NC 125 years ago this month, murdering dozens of Black people and overthrowing the local government. They ran NC for generations, installing racist “Jim Crow” policies that all but ended Black voting. Before Jim Crow, Black voting in the South soared, pushing thousands of Black leaders into office. That kind of turnout hasn’t been seen since. And many of the ideas pushed by those white supremacists — bogus claims of voter fraud, voting obstructions for Black people, and voter intimidation — are in use by today’s Republican Party. For more on the Wilmington Massacre, and why it’s still impacting us today, click the 🔗 in our bio. 🎥 Billy Ball/Dylan Courbat for @cardinalandpine 📘 Zinn Education Project; “Wilmington’s Lie” by David Zucchino #wilmingtonnc #wilmingtonmassacre #blackhistory #northcarolina

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“It’s been a really difficult year,” says Sandy Eyles, a local parent of two in the New Hanover system. Eyles said she saw Moms for Liberty’s takeover coming and began warning local activists before 2022. 

“I wish they had listened to us two years ago,” adds Eyles. “I felt back then like I was being an alarmist, but it all has come true.”

‘It started as a lie.’

Moms for Liberty co-founders Tina Descovich, left, and Tiffany Justice, speak at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Recently in Mooresville, a local woman told the school board that her second-grader had checked out “sexually inappropriate” books in the school library.

Debbie Marsh—a longtime educator who sits on the board—was astonished. Marsh asked what school it was. The woman wouldn’t say.

“We’re texting the folks in the district to ask about the titles—and those books weren’t in [the libraries],” Marsh said. They never had been. 

“I will give this lady the benefit of the doubt,” Marsh continued. “It was misinformation. But at some point, it started as a lie.”

Misinformation is common for Moms for Liberty, their critics say. Still, the organization has managed to launch chapters in 20 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog organization that tracks hate groups, has written that Moms for Liberty are trying to “gain power through school boards to attack public education, ban books, and remove any curriculum that contains discussions of race, discrimination, and LGBTQ+ identities.” The SPLC was reportedly close to designating Moms for Liberty as a hate group.  

Kathy Ishizuka—editor of the School Library Journal, a national publication for K-12 librarians and historians—didn’t hesitate though in a recent column. “Moms for Liberty is a hate group,” she wrote in July. 

Moms for Liberty members say they are parents trying to protect children from liberal indoctrination. But their critics call them book-banners, homophobes, and racists—a group of cultural conservatives who harass educators, disrupt school board meetings, and sometimes don’t bother to get their facts right. Some members have been charged with and convicted of harassing those educators.

Still, this year the group was considered a “power player” in the national GOP, entertaining big names like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, after winning in school board races across the country in 2021 and 2022. Local candidates affiliated with them have won big in places like Wilmington and Iredell County, a suburban district north of Charlotte. They’ve tried in other NC counties. 

But there’s been pushback. An editorial in the Iredell Free Press, a local paper in rural Statesville—skewered the group’s “absurd war on books” in August, characterizing it as a made-up drama. 

“Despite what … the mouthpieces for the Moms for Liberty would have you believe, (Iredell County) parents are not up in arms about the books their children have access to in the libraries,” the paper’s editor, Mike Fuhrman wrote. “… During the past year, a total of zero book challenges have been filed by parents. You read that right. Not one parent has filed a legitimate challenge in the past year. This entire controversy has been drummed up by the Moms for Liberty.”

The problem, said Marsh, the Mooresville school board leader, is that Moms for Liberty is using up all the oxygen in the room with non-issues. That means school leaders and parents are not talking about everything else that is important to North Carolina’s schools.

NC school systems are chronically underfunded by a state legislature that’s investing heavily in school choice programs like charter schools and private school vouchers. Gov. Roy Cooper likened GOP policy on schools to dropping an “atomic bomb” on public education this year. And in January, a nonpartisan report ranked NC last in the nation in school funding effort, which takes into account a state’s ability to fund schools.  

Local systems, especially rural ones, can’t afford to fill the gaps. The lack of support shows up in school resources, the quality of buildings, and the quality of teachers. Rural systems don’t have the cash to supplement low teacher pay from the state, which means teachers choose a longer commute to go to higher-paying, more affluent counties. 

“The General Assembly has been attacking public education for 10 to 15 years now,” Marsh said. “And we’re seeing the fruits of their labor now.”

“Clearly the people in the county school district are (dissatisfied),” Marsh continued. “If you go to the last school board meeting, a number of folks spoke during public comment, and many of them were telling (board members) to get back to the business of educating our children.”

What’s next for Moms for Liberty? 

There’s reason to believe though that Moms for Liberty’s agenda is wearing thin, even in the generally conservative rural districts that dominate politics in NC.

In Mooresville, Marsh’s district, there were three seats up for grabs on the school board in 2023. One of four candidates was backed by Moms for Liberty, which went door-to-door to drum up votes. That candidate is the only one who didn’t win a seat. 

Mooresville, an old NASCAR town north of Charlotte, is just one place with about 50,000 people in it. But this year’s school board election could be seen as a microcosm for a downright bad election year for Moms for Liberty across the US.

It’s hard to make predictions in local politics though. Polls don’t often reach this far down the ballot. Sometimes, you don’t know what’s happening until it’s happened.

Moms for Liberty backed 130 local candidates in the 2023 election cycle, and the overwhelming majority lost. Voters sent a “clear message,” National Education Association President Samantha Pringle said of the election results in neighboring Virginia, where just one of six Moms for Liberty candidates won, but she could have been speaking of the entire country.

“‘Parental rights’ is an appealing term,” Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, told The Washington Post in November. “But voters have caught on to the reality that it is fueling book bans, anti-LGBT efforts, pressure on teachers not to discuss race and gender, whitewashing history, and so on. Parents may want more input in the schools, but as a group they certainly aren’t as extreme as many in the Moms for Liberty.”

Moms for Liberty insists they’re only regrouping. The organization’s founder told The Post that they’re gearing up for 2024. And, in an interview with the conservative-leaning Daily Signal, she said that the group is “just getting started.”

Marsh, who won re-election this year in Mooresville, has a theory though. “I believe that local politics should be nonpartisan, especially boards of education. Ours is supposed to be nonpartisan, but partisanship was thrown into it. I think that cast a backdrop for our race.”

Eyles, the New Hanover parent, agrees, especially after displays like this week’s Board of Education meeting. She said parents are more aware than they were two years ago, when Moms for Liberty began roiling local school board races. They’re mobilizing on school funding issues, and less interested in the culture wars. 

“The 2024 election will be really interesting.” 

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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