A GOP activist who wanted to ban the classic Toni Morrison novel “Beloved” from one of the nation’s largest school districts is featured in a new ad for Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin.
The woman, Laura Murphy, started her campaign in 2012 after her son, then a senior in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, had night terrors after reading the book in his Advanced Placement English class.
“Beloved,” told from the perspective of a mother forced to kill her 2-year-old daughter to protect her from being returned to slavery in the years after the Civil War, features scenes of bestiality and rape. It is one of the most frequently assigned books for high school English classes, and is on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently banned books.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and was adapted into a feature film starring Oprah Winfrey in 1998.
Murphy sought a temporary ban on the book until new rules governing how schools would handle books with “objectionable material” were put in place, The Washington Post reported in 2013.
In the ad, Murphy recounts how Youngkin’s opponent, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, vetoed legislation she pushed for that would have required schools to tell parents if books assigned to their children contained sexually explicit material.
“When my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you could imagine,” Murphy says, adding: “[McAuliffe] doesn’t think parents should have a say.”
The Youngkin campaign would not directly answer an emailed question about whether he would support banning “Beloved” until new rules were in place, instead simply saying Youngkin would sign the legislation McAuliffe vetoed.
“Don’t be lame,” Youngkin campaign spokesman Matt Wolking wrote, accusing the reporter of using a question “written by Terry McAuliffe.” (McAuliffe did not write the question emailed to the Youngkin campaign.)
At the time, McAuliffe said schools had sufficient protections in place — including giving students the option to request alternative materials — and teachers feared advance notice would lead to parents dismissing the educational value of some books.
The ad never mentions the age or grade level of Murphy’s son, and never mentions the material she objected to was “Beloved.”
Murphy’s son, Brett, was later a White House intern during Donald Trump’s administration. He is now a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Education has become a top issue in the contest, in which public polling shows McAuliffe with a consistent but razor-thin lead. Conservative activists, angry over both in-person school closures earlier in the pandemic and what they allege is the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools, have relentlessly focused on local school boards, launching recalls of some members.
They’ve also focused on a comment from McAuliffe downplaying the role of parents in developing curricula — a comment the ad featuring Murphy is clearly designed to remind voters of.
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said at a debate earlier this month.
The issue has fired up GOP voters, and Republicans insist it is helping Youngkin win back at least some of the suburban voters in Northern Virginia and outside Richmond who have trended heavily toward Democrats over the past decade.
In a statement, the McAuliffe campaign deployed their most frequently used talking point, directly comparing Youngkin to Trump.
“Glenn Youngkin’s closing message during the final week of the campaign: book banning and silencing Black authors in Virginia schools,” McAuliffe spokeswoman Christina Freundlich said. “Racist dog whistles and divisive conspiracy theories have been front and center for Glenn Youngkin’s campaign, putting students right at the center of the ugliness and bigotry led by Donald Trump himself.”
CORRECTION: This story has been amended to note that the film version of “Beloved” starring Oprah Winfrey was released in 1998, not 1988.