“You suck. And that’s what I’m going to say when I find you and shove it in your mouth.”
Brandy Howard was reciting for me the opening line of More Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer, all from memory. “I don’t want my son thinking that that’s acceptable to say or how to treat women,” she told me. “Let’s not make it OK.”
We were sitting at Oaks Coffee House in Chattanooga, Tennessee, approximately four minutes from the front lines of Hamilton County’s culture war. Every month, concerned parents pack the school district’s ruthlessly antiseptic boardroom for the local school board meeting. Those who tend to crowd the right side of the room demand an end to masking and vaccine mandates, the removal of classroom literature they describe as pornographic, and the elimination of curricula they believe is infused with critical race theory. Often, they wear matching navy-blue T-shirts whose backs declare that they “do NOT CO-PARENT with the GOVERNMENT.” The fronts simply bear their group’s name: MOMS FOR LIBERTY.
When I visited the monthly meeting in March, one of the Moms for Liberty members, Loretta Lowe, let loose. “Talking about sex, reading about sex—basically anything related to sex—is not needed in the lives of children,” she asserted. “I’m confident that the new policies will remove the grooming from the schools.”
The left side of the room erupted into half-stifled gasps of disbelief. “Audience, please,” one of the eight board members present chided in a weary voice.
Across the no-man’s-land of the center aisle sat another group, one that predates Moms for Liberty by approximately three years. They are Moms for Social Justice, and they stand accused of supplying obscene literature to the students of Hamilton County.
Across the United States, similar scenes play out in beige boardrooms. Groups of furious parents demand an end to Covid-19 mask and vaccine mandates, critical race theory, and “obscene” literature in schools. Many of them wear the same blue T-shirts seen in Chattanooga.
All of them—knowingly or not—are part of the best strategy to win the midterm elections since the Tea Party movement in 2010.
“I’ve never voted in a midterm election in my life,” Brandy Howard told me. “I just didn’t pay attention. Shame on me.”
Brandy exudes a friendly but no-nonsense competence that likely stands her in good stead as mother to two teenagers. Her shoulder-length hair is brown and straight, her clothes casual, her smile genuine. She is the chair of the Hamilton County chapter of Moms for Liberty, and she is on a mission to protect children from what she often refers to as “ugliness.”
Nationally, Moms for Liberty has gained a reputation as a group opposed to public education, based in part on things like spokesperson Quisha King calling for a “mass exodus from the public school system.” For Brandy, however, the movement is about saving the institution that educated her and, until recently, both of her children. In South Carolina, where the Howard children received most of their education, Brandy was extremely active. She led the PTA at her children’s middle school and volunteered extensively in these spaces.
In December 2019, the Howards relocated to Chattanooga. Ten weeks after her kids first attended their new schools, Covid-19 sent them home again. Suddenly, Brandy had an up-close look at her children’s daily school life, and she did not like what she saw.
Initial skepticism at the replacement of To Kill a Mockingbird with Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy turned to full-scale alarm as she listened to the way the teacher taught the book. “There was so much commentary … and it was clearly one-sided. ‘Our entire system is broken. It needs to be burned down.’” Wasn’t this supposed to be a writing class? Who put all these politics here?
“The deciding factor for us,” Brandy said, “was when my daughter came home and said, ‘Mom, I never used to think about it, but now I see somebody with black skin and brown skin, and I’m afraid they’re going to hate me because I have white skin.’” Brandy pulled her daughter out of school to teach her at home. Her son still attends public high school.
For years, Brandy helped her public schools by arranging fundraisers and bringing snacks. Now, she thought, the schools needed a different kind of help. An internet search led her to Moms for Liberty, which she said gave her the knowledge and resources she needed to push back against school overreach. Shortly after, she met a fellow concerned mom for coffee, and the Hamilton County chapter was born.
By all indications, what the national Moms for Liberty organization is most concerned about is winning the midterm elections.
The group incorporated on January 1, 2021, in Brevard County, Florida. The founders, according to its website, are Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich, two “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” At time of publication, the organization claimed 186 chapters in 35 states.
“Our goal is to have a Moms for Liberty chapter in every county in the country,” Descovich told Fox News’ Steve Doocy. “And long-term, to have a Moms for Liberty member in their Moms for Liberty shirt at every school board meeting.”
This interview occurred days after Glenn Youngkin won Virginia’s gubernatorial election—a shocking upset in a state that Biden won by 10 percent just one year earlier—due in large part to his embrace of Loudoun County’s disruptive and furious anti-trans school board activists.
GOP operatives saw the promise of this strategy immediately, which may explain why so many of them are involved in groups like Moms for Liberty. The organization’s website omits the third founder—Bridget Ziegler, wife of the Florida vice chairman of the Republican Party. “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party,” her husband told The Washington Post in October 2021. “But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.”
The Republican establishment was quick to embrace Moms for Liberty. Just 26 days after its incorporation, Descovich appeared on the Rush Limbaugh program. A month later, infamous anti-vaxxer Naomi Wolf gave Moms for Liberty a shout-out on the Tucker Carlson show. Breitbart, Glenn Beck, Newsmax, and The Daily Caller all publicized the organization before it hit the one-year mark.
As a 501(c)4 corporation, Moms for Liberty does not have to disclose its donors, but the group is affiliated with three separate PACs, claims an annual budget of at least $300,000, and has enough money to spring for keynote speakers like Megyn Kelly and Ben Carson at its fundraisers. Despite these considerable resources, Moms for Liberty seems uninterested in promoting specific local initiatives. Instead, its media page focuses on the abstract problems of parents’ rights and critical race theory. The “Resources for Parents” section of its website concentrates primarily on conservative organizations and civic engagement. One link points to the Leadership Institute, which offers courses on how to run for school boards. Another leads to America First Legal—Stephen Miller’s low-rent answer to the ACLU—which tells parents how to use the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment to sue school districts that refuse to cave to right-wing demands.
With the midterms looming, what better way to get parents to show up to vote than by convincing them that leftist school boards are grooming children with pornographic novels and cultural Marxism?
“We never imagined that putting books in classrooms would be what got us the most targeted,” Taylor Lyons told me.
Chattanooga’s Moms for Social Justice got its start in Taylor’s living room. The deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Virginia convinced the group’s four founders that angry social media posts were not enough. They staged rallies, held forums on gun control, and hosted children’s story hours that featured books with progressive themes.
The Classroom Library Project, however, was by far their most ambitious undertaking. In 2018, while volunteering at libraries in some of the most underfunded schools in the county, they discovered a sparse wilderness of outdated books on largely empty shelves. Since then, the group has transformed 17 classroom corners into cozy reading nooks. “We worked with literacy advocates, teachers, librarians to really put together these beautifully diverse reading lists that had protagonists of color, and LGBTQ protagonists, and queer authors, and authors of color,” Lyons said.
You can, perhaps, imagine the reaction of the first Moms for Liberty member who discovered that a group called Moms for Social Justice was filling Chattanooga schools with what they considered obscene, perhaps even pornographic books dripping with critical race theory.
For the last six months, Taylor and her co-founders have received constant harassment. Local Moms for Liberty members have threatened to report them for child abuse or distribution of pornography, publicly accused them of grooming children, and tagged them as #PedophileSympathizers in their closed Facebook group. “They have literally called us witches,” Taylor told me.
Taylor is intimately acquainted with the claustrophobic world of evangelical paranoia. As the daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor, she grew up steeped in purity culture and shamed for any interest in sex. Books provided an escape hatch. “I was a voracious reader growing up. I just started to read all kinds of things, many titles that my parents would have been furious had they known that I was reading.” A high school teacher suggested The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Taylor’s subsequent realization that the Christ myth was structurally no different from any other began to crack her faith. She moved to California, earned her master’s degree in theater, and worked as a starving artist alongside her husband until she became pregnant. Years later, she finds herself here, in Chattanooga, with a third grader, a first grader, and a five-month-old who accompanies Taylor to school board meetings.
In many ways, this Social Justice Mom is a cautionary tale of what can happen to the child of a conservative if allowed free rein in the library. “Having access to information is what leads to this ‘liberal indoctrination,’” she laughed. Then she got serious. “I understand the landscape that Brandy is coming from,” she said. “If your entire community—your friends, your family, your spouse, your kids—are all ascribing to the same ideology, and you don’t really associate yourself with anyone else, it’s really hard to see outside that perspective.”
Brandy Howard’s daughter may not be in public school any longer, but the Moms for Liberty chair understands the importance of the system. “I have the resources to make sure she’s in a different environment. Not everybody does.”
When Brandy was a child, public school was one of the only things she had going for her. Her biological mother gave birth to her elder sister at 14 and to Brandy when she was 16. Their birth father was in jail. The two were quickly placed into foster care, then adopted together when Brandy was four. “My adopted family has their own issues.” A shadow passed over Brandy’s face. “Let’s just say it was not a fabulous childhood.”
As a teenager, Brandy broke a lot of rules, but she saw school as her best shot at a better life. She studied hard and got into the University of Kentucky. She found Jesus, met her husband, and together they settled down in South Carolina to make a happier, healthier kind of home.
None of it would have happened without public education. “Which is why I’m doing this, right? Because education is the ticket—in my opinion, was my ticket—out of ugliness.”
Once Brandy found herself settled, she began to write those tickets to others in need of help. The Howards spent many years as foster parents for children of all different races and backgrounds. “We would say, ‘God makes families in all different ways, and it’s a wonderful thing.’”
A solid education saved Brandy, and she worries that an extreme focus on social justice could sabotage other children’s chances at success. She cites a third-grade reading unit centered around Peter Pan. “The book is fine, but the teacher’s manual instructs the teacher to point out and discuss racism, sexism, and xenophobia in Peter Pan. In third grade! If your goal is to teach children to love to read, well, you just ruined it.”
Jeremiah Welch-Chambers remembers seeing posters for The Hate U Give in the hallways of his middle school. Then, he started reading it.
“I was never a big book person. I mean, now I am, but it was such an eye-opener,” he said. “It began to paint a picture in my mind, like, this is my cousin. I have cousins who act just like this.”
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas won several awards, topped the New York Times young adult bestseller list for 50 consecutive weeks. It also occupies prime real estate on conservative hit lists. Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman cited the book as an example of the “pure filth” currently on school library shelves. The book, which tells the story of a girl who witnesses the death of a friend at the hands of police, contains both profanity and less-than-flattering depictions of law enforcement.
“We started reading [the book] in school at around eighth grade,” Jeremiah said. “Of course, we struggled to want to care about it through chapter one. But that was the first time that I never saw any of them struggle to read a book after chapter one. They loved the book. It was amazing.”
Hamilton County has a literacy problem. Only 35 percent of elementary school children are reading at or above grade level. For students like Welch-Chambers, the numbers are worse: On average, Black students are 2.5 grade levels behind their white peers. County schools remain highly segregated, and those with majority minority populations are often grossly underfunded. Tyner Academy, where Welch-Chambers attends high school, is 97 percent nonwhite and also actively falling apart, thanks to structural issues with the building.
It’s safe to say Jeremiah is a book person now. The high school junior is active on the debate team, plans to attend college, and chairs the Tennessee High School Democrats. Another cautionary tale.
Like Brandy, Jeremiah is worried that books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might disappear from library shelves—more worried, he said, than about The Hate U Give. But he does not buy her concern that books are teaching the concept of racism to children who do not encounter it in their daily lives. “For most Black kids it’s not even second grade when you have to realize that there’s racism. And it’s not even from your parents telling you; I think you just start to realize it,” he said. “Your child’s reading about it; we’re living it.”
Holly, a librarian who has asked to be referred to by a pseudonym due to past harassment from Moms for Liberty, observed something similar at her mostly Black school. One student with dyslexia began to come into the library every couple of days just to talk about the characters. For her, books like The Hate U Give were engaging enough to make the difficulty of reading worthwhile. “They’re books that mirror some of her understanding of the world,” Holly said. Removing these books might remove that mirror from her life. The nearest public library to the high school where Holly works is 10 minutes away by car.
Moms for Liberty also seems to be concerned with a very specific subset of literature. “Nobody’s complained about the Stephen King books. They have just as much profanity. They have blood, guts, and gore in them,” Holly observed. “So I have to wonder, as a librarian: What are you really concerned about?”