Moms for Liberty, a group bent on changing the composition of school boards and aligning public schools across the nation with ultra-conservative, anti-LGBTQ and anti-COVID safety measures, has found a home in Western North Carolina’s most populous and progressive-voting county.
Florida-based Moms for Liberty established a Buncombe chapter, one of 18 in North Carolina, last winter, according to the organization’s national Facebook page and website. In June, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a progressive non-profit legal advocacy organization, labeled Moms for Liberty an anti-government extremist group and part of a growing movement of hate in the U.S.
The lead organizer of the local chapter is former GOP Buncombe County Board of Education candidate Kim Poteat, who is the only local administrator of the 70-member Buncombe Moms for Liberty private Facebook group. Poteat and two other GOP Buncombe school board candidates lost their 2022 bid to Democratic-backed candidates.
The national group’s stated mission is to “(fight) for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Moms for Liberty has up to 300 chapters nationwide and about 120,000 members, the SPLC estimates.
When asked by Asheville Watchdog about the Buncombe group’s formation, its plans and the recent SPLC label, Poteat said she was too busy to answer questions.
Moms for Liberty reportedly has ties to the Proud Boys, which played a leading role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a right-wing group that, according to the Associated Press, teaches that “elected sheriffs must “protect their citizens from the overreach of an out-of-control federal government” by refusing to enforce laws they believe are unjustified.
SPLC featured Moms for Liberty in its “The Year in Hate & Extremism 2022” report, which documented 1,225 hate and extremist groups across the US and labeled it anti-government and anti-student. SPLC, which has been criticized by the right as characterizing non-violent conventional conservative organizations as equivalent to violent extremists, defines an anti-government group as one that believes the federal government is tyrannical.
“Since the group’s 2021 founding, Moms for Liberty members across the nation have been making waves for intimidating and harassing teachers and school officials,” the SPLC report said. “They have publicly battled teachers’ unions, labeling them as ‘cartels’ and ‘terrorist organizations.’
Moms for Liberty’s primary goals are “to fuel right-wing hysteria and to make the world a less comfortable or safe place for certain students — primarily those who are Black, LGBTQ or who come from LGBTQ families,” according to the report.
Moms for Liberty labels itself a “parental rights” organization.
Episodes of Moms for Liberty’s “Joyful Warriors” podcast in 2023 included “There is No Such Thing as a Transgender Child” and “American Values Belong in School Libraries.”
In response to the SPLC’s report, Moms for Liberty distributed a news release saying it had “been subjected to a now months-long campaign to smear its members as hateful fascists. … (I)t’s worth taking a closer look at the major policy positions M4L takes to assess whether they or their critics are, in fact, ‘extreme.’ These positions include skepticism about pandemic, and especially in-school masking, policies; opposition to critical race theory and gender ideology in curricula; and the age-appropriate curation of books in public school libraries.”
The national organization welcomed Buncombe into its fold Feb. 5. The Buncombe group’s private Facebook page is administered by the national Facebook page, Moms for Liberty Assistant Coordinator Neely Turlington, National Moms for Liberty Chapter Coordinator Pat Blackburn. and Poteat.
Turlington and Blackburn did not return messages seeking comment.
On Nov. 13, 2022, five days after her school board election loss, Poteat posted this on the Facebook page “East Asheville for Safety and Truth:”
“I can’t sit back and not stand for our children., I was thinking about joining a Mom’s for Liberty group but guess what …. there isn’t one in Buncombe County. So I have a question for those who are struggling with getting answers from our school system/Board of Education, parents, grandparents, concerned citizens of Buncombe County …. Who would be interested in starting a chapter here in Buncombe County if I led it? Who would be involved?”
Poteat later commented on an April 23 SKYline News Facebook page “news & opinion” video.
“Moms for Liberty Buncombe is here! We have had our first meeting and heading to a second meeting. Come join us and help us stop this mess and protect our children, our county, state and nation!”
National group got its start during pandemic
Moms for Liberty traces its origins to the middle of the pandemic.
“They really sprung up in 2021 during COVID,” said Maya Henson Carey, an SPLC research analyst who has studied Moms for Liberty since April 2022. “That’s when we really saw school board meetings just erupting where really no one was paying attention to school board meetings before.
“So, they came about really as opposed to mask and vaccine mandates during COVID, and that evolved to being against inclusive education like social emotional learning and critical race theory. And then that has really evolved into this anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.”
Asked if Asheville City Schools knew of Moms for Liberty and if anyone in leadership had received communications from the group, ACS spokesman Dillon Huffman said, “To the best of my knowledge, no one from the Buncombe chapter of Moms for Liberty has reached out to anyone in Asheville City Schools.”
He added the school was “not interested in commenting on the existence of a particular group, however, we do welcome open dialogue with all community groups.”
Ann Franklin, Buncombe County Board of Education chair, responded via Buncombe County Schools when The Watchdog asked her and other school leadership for comment on the local Moms for Liberty chapter and the national group’s SPLC label.
“We encourage our parents to bring their compliments, questions, and concerns to their school administrative team or central services administration,” Franklin said. “We value the opportunity to clarify any of our policies or procedures and hear directly from our parents.”
Board members for Asheville City schools did not respond to several requests for comment.
Moms for Liberty’s national aspirations stretch beyond providing school board meeting public comment talking points. It started a political action committee soon after receiving a $50,000 contribution from one of the funders of the “Stop the Steal” movement, Carey said, and in the 2022 midterms it endorsed hundreds of school board candidates and claimed to have flipped 17 boards to conservative majorities.
“The new Moms for Liberty affiliated school board members were being sworn into office at the very same meetings we saw them fire superintendents that had enforced mask mandates,” Carey said. “We saw them enact anti-CRT (critical race theory) policies and set up book review committees.”
“They have this power now”
Efforts to ban books from school libraries — often those exploring LGBTQ or racial themes — have become a centerpiece of both national and local grassroots efforts. BCS and ACS board meetings are no exception.
The North Carolina-based Pavement Education Project, a “nonpartisan initiative to educate North Carolinians about the obscene books in public schools & media centers,” has more than 140 books from BCS libraries alone on its content rating system, which it says is based on the system used to rate films. Such a list could be used to challenge library catalogs and school curriculum.
“(Moms for Liberty) is really being strategic and putting themselves on these boards and in these places where they can make these big changes, regardless of what the teachers and the parents and the students feel,” Carey said. “They have this power now to make these changes that align with their values.”
Some of the ideas motivating Moms for Liberty are not new.
Elizabeth McRae, Western Carolina University associate professor of history and author of “Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy,” has documented 50 years of effective grassroots resistance to racial equality, often in public schools.
“I think the strategies of deployment of parental choice disguises what is really an undemocratic impulse in a democratic language,” McRae said. “I think that’s typical.”
While McRae has not done individual research on Moms for Liberty, she said groups active in 1950s and 1960s — like Women for Constitutional Government, the Minute Women and Pro-America — “had very similar goals, (like) the control of public education for what their group’s values were … and the same strategies: working with curriculum, teacher training, the kind of grassroots, bottom-up effort to shape public education when it began to become more equitable.”
As far back as the 1920s, groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy were pushing for textbook censorship and revision to fit a “Lost Cause” version of history, one that minimized slavery’s role in the Civil War, glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and framed the white South as a victim.
They led changes to public education that affected not only the South but the nation, McRae said, fueled by a range of organized political support. Through the 1970s, she noted, these groups were not always aligned with a single party, a marked difference to Moms for Liberty’s clear alignment with the GOP.
McRae said it is difficult to quantify the growth and life cycle of such grassroots organizations but noted their beginnings and endings may not be as important as the long-lasting outcomes they create.
“Whether it (the group) continues or not, if you’ve changed the textbooks for the state, you’ve had an impact for a lot longer — your impact is a lot longer than the visibility of your organization.”
Republicans’ focus on Buncombe BOE
In Buncombe, Republicans flexed power this year with the passage of House Bill 66, a redistricting law amended late in the legislative process to include a mandate to draw new Buncombe Board of Education district lines.
Though that mandate is faltering because of census block and school district incongruities, it was hailed as a success by the GOP and backed by former school board candidates, including Poteat.
“I fully support HB66 in regard to School District Voting here in Buncombe County,” Poteat told The Watchdog in June. “Our students will benefit by the fair representation where only local district residents will be voting for their district’s representative. As I was campaigning, many throughout Buncombe County shared with me that their voices were not being heard. Each district needs to have their values fairly represented on the school board.”
Four Buncombe School Board seats will be open in the 2024 races.
Moms for Liberty recruits school board candidates and hosts training in conjunction with the Leadership Institute, a conservative political training organization, and conducts online and in-person classes on how to recruit school board candidates, how to campaign, and how to raise money, Carey, the SPLC analyst, said.
“At their national convention in Philadelphia this year, they actually had a session on the first 100 days after you flip the school board; so how to enact as many policies as possible in the first 100 days,” Carey said.
Though Moms for Liberty’s sudden rise to a national stage and its strategic, self-described “grassroots” campaign have garnered media attention and political bandwagoning, its ideas aren’t shared by most, the SPLC contends.
“They really are just a reactionary minority,” Carey said. “They’re usually the loudest voices in the room when we see a lot of school board meetings. They’re the ones with the megaphones and the signs and things like that, but they are not in the majority there. … There’s a ton of research that says that the majority of parents and students and educators don’t agree with their messaging.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email email@example.com. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.