Brownshirts vs. the Board of Education

A right-wing maelstrom has descended on public education all over America.

Consider, briefly, two organizations, which arose in the same state, sixty-six years apart.

On October 26, 1954, five months after the monumental Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education mandated the desegregation of public schools across America, the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties was chartered in Virginia.

“We believe,” they wrote, in a statement of purpose widely distributed across the state,

“In the Sovereignty of the Several States;
In certain liberties for the individual citizens of these states;
In the preservation of racial integrity;
In an education for all children;
In a society based on racial separateness;
In the separation of church and state;
In the precious heritage handed down to us by our forefathers;
Very sincerely, that our objectives are in the best interest of both races.”

The organization claimed to be “non-profit” and “non-political.” But their objective was strident opposition to desegregation; its members included Congressmen, ministers, and housewives. Husband-and-wife memberships were offered at $10 per annum, the same price as a regular membership. According to historian Brian E. Lee, the organization attracted some 10,000 members, becoming an important source of funding for new all-white segregation academies. Its members were indeed “people from all walks of life” — as Lee put it, white people engaged in a sense of “a shared fate among the white citizens in something greater than themselves.” The organization presented itself as a union of concerned parents and public officials, working for the welfare of children by preserving “racial integrity.”

But its principal and most influential members were local oligarchs in Virginia’s Southside, such as the diminutive, cigar-chomping Farmville Herald owner J. Barrye Wall, who shaped his newspaper into a propaganda outlet denouncing integration, the Warren Court, and the NAACP. In the Herald, the specter of Communist influence on American youth was a perennial subject, and dark intimations spread across the editorial pages that civil-rights activism and support for immigration was a Soviet plot. Its members infiltrated and then dominated school boards, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire land for segregation academies. In one 1959 edition of the Defenders’ newsletter, Defenders’ News and Views, the broader political aim was made particularly stark: “If these private schools continue to succeed, Conservatives will be in a strong position to elect to public office only those who are dedicated to Constitutional government.” The “Constitutional principle” at question was segregation, and in Prince Edward County, the entire public school system was closed down, leaving legions of children — Black children in particular — bereft of any education opportunities at all. The Black residents of the county, led by the remarkable Reverend Francis L. Griffin, waged a fierce battle for their education: students walked out of inadequate segregated schools en masse, and the national NAACP joined the fight. Still, it took half a decade and another Supreme Court edict to force the public schools to reopen, and to integrate. The effects have lingered: 20 percent of the county lives in poverty, its illiteracy rate of 16 percent is four points higher than the state average; and the chronically-underfunded school district faces declining enrollment.

After America’s stuttering and disconnected school year of 2020 — in which teachers died in droves, mothers dropped out of the workforce in record numbers, and all-digital learning exacerbated preexisting inequities — the onslaught of protest has roiled school boards already reeling from the impacts of the pandemic. This moment of peril for public education is being voraciously exploited by widespread and motivated right-wing activism. Departments of education around the country are facing interlinked right-wing protest movements: those parents not fulminating against Godless anti-racist curricula and the presence of transgender and gay students are protesting mask mandates and covid-19 precautions. The problem has metastasized and become national — more expansive than can be contained in a single article, or a single state. In practice, this is the biggest threat the public education system has faced since the 1950s; and, as one Republican operative recently put it on Fox News, the current strife will be “a boon for private schools, for charter schools”: nouveau segregation academies.

Last year, 165 miles north of Prince Edward County, the generically named organization Fight For Schools was founded by Ian Prior, who had served as Principal Deputy Director for Public Affairs in the Department of Justice under Donald Trump. Unlike the Defenders — whose composition has been demystified by diligent historical work over past decades — the membership of Fight For Schools has proven more opaque, its chief and often sole spokesperson in the press being Prior himself, who has appeared on Fox News at least eight times, rallied alongside Ben Carson, and has been a steady darling of the Daily Caller. Nonetheless, its political aims are no less stark, and echo those of the Defenders; it’s headquartered in Loudoun, a county with a checkered and brutal desegregation history of its own. (Last year, the county issued a belated apology to the Black community for an integration process that took 14 years of bitter massive resistance to overcome.) Fight For Schools was founded to combat the nebulous specter of “critical race theory,” a phrase that nominally refers to an academic discipline that explores racism’s role in social systems, but has become a bête noire of the right over the past year.

In its dog-whistle-ridden “Why We Fight” manifesto, Fight For Schools lays out a sinister vision of public education, presenting itself as a critical bulwark against the indoctrination and diminishment of white children:

WE FIGHT AGAINST IMPLEMENTING CRITICAL RACE THEORY CONCEPTS IN OUR SCHOOLS

Critical race theory holds that American institutions, language, culture, meritocracy, and liberal system of government are systemically racist and must be fundamentally altered.

In our schools, these changes are implemented in two ways. At the system level, merit-based achievement and admissions are being stifled in order to bring high achieving students back to the pack in the name of “equity.” Then, in staff trainings and the classroom, teachers and students are pressured to see everything through the lens of race and to treat individuals as part of a socially constructed demographic, rather than as unique individuals.

Simply put, our schools are teaching children to judge people NOT by the content of their character, but by the color of their skin.

WE FIGHT FOR PARENTS AND WE FIGHT FOR SCHOOLS

Fight for Schools is a non-partisan political action committee focused on electing common sense candidates that commit to policies that support equal opportunity, tolerance, meritocracy and achievement.

Help support our cause to take back America’s schools.”

Aided by a pliant and eager right-wing media, Fight for Schools has featured in countless roundups of the “parent-led rebellion” against “indoctrination” that has swept across the nation. And it has made Loudoun County school board meetings a raucous, nationally-watched mess. Loudoun parents have compared diversity initiatives to an “American version of the Chinese cultural revolution,” and denounced its roots in “cultural Marxism.” Numerous members of the Loudoun County School Board are facing active Fight For Schools-sponsored recall petition drives that garner thousands of signatures; one member, Beth Barts, has already resigned, after a scandal caused by her membership in a group entitled “Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County.” School board meetings have become the sites of ferocious protests against anti-racist education and trans-inclusive policies: in June, holding signs that read “Education Not Indoctrination,” angry residents drowned out speakers with a raucous rendition of the Star-Spangled banner at a meeting that led to at least one arrest. “Shame on you,” they chanted, their white faces mottled with red.


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In practice, the anti-critical-race-theory protests are a cut-and-paste template of prior American moral panics: CRT will lead to the diminishment of white children’s morale; it is a form of socialist subversion; it is a fundamental threat to the American way of life. These reactionary forces have plagued the United States in waves for a century — but when combined with the extraordinary circumstances of a plague, they represent an existential threat to public education as we know it.

Two weeks ago, in Brevard County, Florida, a school board member named Jennifer Jenkins recounted, in somber and even tones, the threats and harassment she had faced for her support of mask mandates in schools. Protesters had come to her home brandishing weapons; had burned the letters “F U” into her lawn with weed killer; even chopped down one of her trees. They had reported her, falsely, to the state’s Department of Children and Families, claiming she had beaten and burned her five-year-old daughter. She hadn’t. She had supported a policy that, during a pandemic in which no children under the age of 12 have been vaccinated, masks should be worn in the county’s schools. While mandatory vaccinations and public health measures for plagues like smallpox and polio have been met with resistance movements in the past, covid-19 arrived at the crest of a decades-long anti-vaccination wave — and in an era of increasingly well-funded and immersive right-wing media. In the U.S., the anti-vaxx movement spuriously links vaccine opposition with principles like individual liberty, the Constitution, and religious freedom — core articles of faith and militancy on the American right.

All across the country, similar stories have unfolded, with blocs of dedicated right-wing activists — some parents, some not — enacting an interlinked series of protests against the public education system. In Hampton Roads, Virginia, a man with a knife in his waistband screamed expletives at a school board meeting, and police investigated shooting threats directed at board members over Covid protocols. In Kent County, Michigan, the Health Department commissioner resigned after a woman repeatedly tried to run him off the road at 70 miles an hour following the instatement of a mask mandate in schools. In Williamson County, Tennessee, health-care experts who had testified in favor of masking were subject to death threats by screaming parents.

The parallel anti-critical-race theory movement has compounded the pressure on depleted and exhausted educators — bolstered by state legislatures around the country. Dedicated right-wing activists have elected to run for school board en masse, potentially engulfing American public education in a reactionary backlash for years to come. The movement is well-funded by organizations like Intercessors for America and the Leadership Institute; principally organized around opposition to anti-racist education; and bolstered by two years of sweeping pandemic paranoia. 2021 has seen more recall efforts against school board members than any year on record.

This current, perilous moment in American education hearkens back to midcentury conflicts over school desegregation. The principal difference is that the era of “massive resistance” was largely, though not entirely, concentrated in Southern states. In an era in which right-wing media is ubiquitous, national, paranoiac and spread via memes, Facebook groups, and untethered dark-money cash (from the Kochs among others), such sentiments are more diffuse: they stretch country-wide, from California to New Jersey, up and down the coasts and through the heartland. (When I mentioned writing a feature about school boards on Twitter, dozens of people reached out to me, asking me to look into meetings in their districts — in Tennessee, Wichita, Texas, Idaho, Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Seattle, Ohio.)  At play is a clash between well-organized and determined reactionary forces drowning out looser majorities; a determination to define and control the national character, and to maintain a status quo that favors whites; and a bitter, cynical weaponization of the sacral figure of the concerned parent. It is an overwhelming onslaught that will require dedicated resistance, hindered rather than helped by an overtly right-wing Supreme Court; it will require battles in boardrooms and on the streets, in homes and meeting rooms, and demand extraordinary courage from ordinary people.