Before the Hamilton County, Ind., chapter of Moms for Liberty achieved national notoriety this month for quoting Adolf Hitler in its newsletter, it was already at war over education in the schools of Indianapolis’s suburbs.
School board meetings blew up over “critical race theory” and “social emotional learning.” A slate of conservative school board candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty faced off last year against a slate opposed to the group’s efforts to commandeer the school system. The diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator of Carmel Clay Schools was under attack. Transgender students, or the theoretical threat such students could pose, were suddenly front and center.
“It was bad,” said Carmella Sparrow, the principal at a charter school in Indianapolis who had moved to suburban Carmel for the public schools but found herself doing battle with Moms for Liberty and its supporters at local school board meetings. “They were screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs. You could not conduct any meaningful business.”
The group’s reputation for confrontation and controversy is very much intact, but as Moms for Liberty convenes on Thursday in Philadelphia, it is doing so not as a small fringe of far-right suburban mothers but as a national conservative powerhouse — precisely because of chapters like Hamilton County’s and their energized members.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-leaning human rights organization, deemed Moms for Liberty an anti-government “extremist group” this year. But five Republican presidential candidates, including former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, will be addressing its Joyful Warriors National Summit.
“Looking forward to seeing all my fellow moms on a mission this Friday at the @Moms4Liberty’s Joyful Warriors summit,” Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and current presidential candidate, wrote on Twitter this week. “Nothing will stop us from using the power of our voices to shake up Washington!”
The group draws power from its diffusion — 275 chapters in 45 states with nearly 115,000 members, it claims — and the social issues that animate it. These include the teaching of L.G.B.T.Q. issues, critical race theory, and school books that it considers pornographic — all of which have captivated the base of the Republican Party.
“The vote of the American parent is important,” said Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty and former school board member from Indian River County, Fla.
Moms for Liberty almost certainly would not have been formed in January 2021, by three Florida mothers, were it not for the coronavirus pandemic. Disparate parents’ groups on the right had for years tried to cajole, harangue or even take over school boards, but the pandemic galvanized parental rage — first over school shutdowns, then over mask mandates and finally over curriculums that parents could see firsthand through the computer screens their children were glued to.
“What Covid did was fast-tracked and expedited the concern about the materials in our children’s education,” said Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, whose wife, Bridget Ziegler, was a Moms for Liberty co-founder. “It forced parents to basically become assistant teachers. We all became teacher aides.”
Conservatives who flocked to school board meetings in places like Carmel, Ind., and Franklin, Tenn., either on their own or under the auspices of local groups like Unify Carmel, soon formed chapters of Moms for Liberty, whose funding sources remain mysterious but seemingly plentiful. As the pandemic receded, issues of race, gender and sexuality rose to the fore among these parents, just as they did in the Republican Party.
Critics of these groups saw their activism as demagogy, violent threats and opposition to public education masquerading as parental concern. At one meeting of the Carmel Clay Schools board in Indiana, a conservative protester was arrested after a handgun fell out of his pocket.
Diane Hannah, a Rutgers religion professor and a parent in the school district battling the Hamilton County chapter of Moms for Liberty, said many of the members showing up at school board meetings were not parents of children in the public schools.
“The problem is they have an audience of people who watch Fox News, who read the sensationalist reporting and who don’t have kids in the schools,” she said, “so they believe there are litter boxes for students who identify as cats. They believe that gay kids are bullying straight kids to be gay.”
Ms. Justice pushed back on that hard, denying any violent intent from her group and accusing opponents of trying to silence conservatives.
Parents “came to the schools to express their concern and to try to see what could be done,” she said, “and instead of the schools listening to the primary caregiver of that child, the person that is responsible for directing the upbringing of the child, they shut them down.”
Beyond Mr. Ziegler and the Florida G.O.P., the ties that bind Moms for Liberty, which is ostensibly nonpartisan, to the Republican Party, are tight. Mr. DeSantis has long been a supporter of the group hatched from his home state, but more moderate Republican voices like Ms. Haley and Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, will also be in Philadelphia to lend their support.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the self-funded entrepreneur in the race, already addressed a chapter in New Hampshire this month. He will speak to the national conference on Saturday.
The speaking schedule included one Democrat, the anti-vaccine gadfly Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but he backed out on Tuesday, citing a “family holiday obligation.”
The candidates who are going were undeterred by the negative attention the group received when its Hamilton County chapter published a quotation from Hitler in its newsletter: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.”
After initially defending the quote, the chapter was forced to apologize.
“We condemn Adolf Hitler’s actions and his dark place in human history,” Paige Miller, the chapter’s chairwoman, said in a statement. “We should not have quoted him in our newsletter and express our deepest apology.”
Ms. Miller did not respond to interview requests, but Ms. Justice said the swarm of attention only proved how the news media, teachers’ unions and the liberal establishment were trying to stifle parental voices.
“Never in a million years did this mom think she supported Hitler,” Ms. Justice said. “That was maybe naïve, but the death threats we’re getting now — you should see the things people send me. They want to put a bullet in my children’s head because I’m a Nazi.”
But, she said, the quote pointed to the efforts by the “genocidal monsters of history,” like Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Hitler, to control their nations’ youth. She added: “This is like a slippery slope here, people. You’ve got Joe Biden saying they’re not your children. They’re all of our children.”