By the time School Board Appreciation Week rolled around in January, dozens of parents in Tennessee had already spent months pushing the school board in Williamson County to remove a slate of books from the school curriculum and library including “Martin Luther King and the March on Washington,” “Separate is Never Equal,” and a couple of books about Ruby Bridges, the first Black student to integrate an all-white New Orleans elementary school. Meanwhile, the conservative group Moms for Liberty formally asked the school board to reconsider the use of 31 books, arguing the content was either too mature, depressing, contained poor grammar or was historically inaccurate.
To push back, a group of local moms in the advocacy group One WillCo hatched a plan. They put out a call for donations on the group’s Facebook page, and within 24 hours they received enough money to pay for their gifts to the school board: Nearly two dozen hardcover copies of “This is Your Time” by Ruby Bridges.
“We hand-wrapped them, we put handwritten notes in them, we delivered them to our school board members and our superintendent so we could help educate the school board about the issue [and] show them, ‘Look, this is not scandalous. This book is really age appropriate,’” said Jennifer Cortez, a co-founder of One WillCo. The group advocates for racial equity in Williamson County, 20 miles south of Nashville, which is 85 percent white.
A similar scene is unfolding all across the country. In recent months, schools have been the focus of a surge of conservative-driven book bans largely targeting ones about racial and sexual identity. In Tennessee, a school board recently voted to ban the teaching of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” calling the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust memoir inappropriate for students. In Pennsylvania last December, a school district removed the LGBTQ classic “Heather Has Two Mommies” from elementary school libraries and told school officials to remove all books about gender identity from the shelves. In Texas, a state lawmaker sent shockwaves through educational circles when he targeted approximately 850 books including “The Legal Atlas of the United States” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” And in North Carolina, school officials removed a book about racial profiling called “Dear Martin” from its 10th grade assigned reading earlier this year.
In addition, a rising number of legislative proposals are attempting to control what students learn and codify those restrictions into state law. With support from Moms for Liberty and other right-leaning organizations, school boards have been facing an unprecedented number of book challenges this academic year. The number of book challenges recorded by the American Library Association in just the first three months of the school year nearly outpaced the whole of 2019.
“What we're seeing recently is a dramatic increase in attempts to… argue that non-educator voices should be valued the above educator voices or that individual opinions of particular community members should be allowed to determine what all students are able to learn,” said Nora Pelizzari, national spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Censorship.
But moms who oppose such bans are pushing back. Across the country, they’re taking the lead in organizing, volunteering, and speaking out against efforts to restrict curricula and ban books mostly by and about people of color and LGBTQ people in their kids’ school districts.
“We’re kind of being moms but on a bigger scale,” Cortez said. “We’re doing what moms do. We're calling our friends. We're talking to neighbors. We're saying ‘hey, have you heard what's going on? You want to come help us out?’ This is a real problem. And we're spreading the word,” Cortez said.
Natosha Daniels’ 15-year-old daughter who lives in Round Rock, Texas, 20 miles north of Austin, started noticing that her AP human geography textbook routinely characterized African and Latin American countries as “poor” without including any other information — not even so much as what makes them poor. Later, she saw a photo in a textbook of two intersecting streets, with one named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the other named for a prominent Black civil rights leader. The book’s caption said that the city was honoring both leaders — a notion Daniels’ daughter found to be too contradictory to make sense.
“My daughter has brought so many examples to me within our curriculum where she feels like not only is she not represented, but the story that is being told is one of white saviorism,” Daniels said. “It’s a very white male lens on the world.”
Daniels believes it's important for her kids to be able to see themselves in the literature and history they read in school. She’s a leader of the Round Rock Black Parents Association, an activist group of more than 400 parents of Black students that’s working on behalf of that effort.
One petition circulated by the Round Rock Black Parents Association garnered thousands of signatures to keep the book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” on the school’s approved reading list. The book is a children's adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s national book award-winner "Stamped from the Beginning." It’s one of many books targeted for removal by other parents in the district. The movement to ban books gained power in Texas when Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law last year (that limits how educators teach students about topics ranging from America’s history of racism and slavery to current events.
More than a dozen states have imposed book bans and restrictions since January 2021 limiting the ways teachers can discuss racism and sexism, including the teaching of “critical race theory,” a decades-old academic framework pertaining to racism in America and its effects, which has become a hot-button issue among the conservative right. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is promoting legislation to “fight back against woke indoctrination” after banning the teaching of critical race theory and The New York Times’ acclaimed 1619 Project, which explores the legacy of slavery in America, in schools.
“Sarasota has been, for about a year and a half, one of the epicenters in the country of chaos and confusion at school board meetings,” said Carol Lerner, who worked in public education for around 30 years. She is a director of the nonprofit organization Support Our Schools and the founder of a sister organization called Protect Our Public Schools, and is fighting to overturn DeSantis’ legislation.
“It started… with parents and people from the community coming to the school board meetings claiming that the Sarasota school district was indoctrinating their students in Marxism and Black Lives Matter and then later on, when critical race theory became kind of the buzzword, it switched over to that,” Lerner said. Support Our Schools amplified its own position by forming a coalition with 18 organizations in the area including civil rights, LGBTQ, social justice and religious groups.
The nonprofit group Red Wine & Blue is also amplifying its power by building coalitions among suburban women from all over the country. More than 2,200 people since June have taken part in the group's hour-long “Troublemaker Trainings” on Zoom, where moms pick up tips on advocating for themselves in school board meetings. The group launched a campaign called Book Ban Busters last month to spur moms to mobilize in their communities against book bans. Through a web site, they can report a ban, register for training, or donate banned books.
“We moved to the suburbs for high quality schools where our kids are going to be challenged and they're going to be taught to think critically,” said Katie Paris, founder of Red Wine & Blue. “Why do we have politicians coming in and saying what our kids should read rather than that being in the hands of educators?”
“If you are a parent that does not want your child to read a book, then absolutely opt them out, but don't take that opportunity away from my kids or any other parent’s kids,” Paris said.