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Local Activist, Ridgeland Mayor Distance from ‘Hate Group’ in Censorship Controversy

Madison County Library Board Crowd
The explosive movement of book challenges sweeping across America continues to evolve in Mississippi—but some of the players involved disagree on the goals, including some who appeared at a Ridgeland Board of Aldermen meeting to debate the withholding of funds. Photo by Nick Judin

For Lindsey Beckham, the inception of the movement washing through America’s schools and libraries wasn’t about books at all.

“I can tell you exactly how that happened,” Beckham told the Mississippi Free Press. “I first got involved with the school board last June. That was the first board meeting that was open to the public—before it’d been Zoom.”

Beckham and parents like her were gathering in Madison County for one reason in particular.

“We started with the school-board meetings because we wanted the masks off our children. Now, that’s where we got started. Then we started to see things happening that we didn’t agree with. We started to notice things that we had never known before.”

In part, that meant books in the libraries that some parents, political leaders, and conservative activists and commentators have decided are inappropriate for children. The books under fire run the gamut from coming-of-age stories with references to sex, or sexual development—like Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”—to books depicting police brutality and coarse language, like Mississippian Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give.”

A woman mostly in black speaks at a wooden podium in a town hall
“I think that we were very complacent as parents,” Lindsey Beckham of Madison County said. “We were not nearly as involved as we should have been. We didn’t know what was being taught in our schools.” Photo by Nick Judin

Chief among the challenged books was Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” a fictional account of a child’s life in and escape from Afghanistan, which contains scenes of violent rape and abuse. 

Beckham’s stated goal was keeping the books away from children coming across them in the school library. In Madison County, that goal now seems well in hand. As Mississippi Today’s Julia James first reported, the Madison County School Board has acceded to demands from Beckham and other parents to place a list of more than 20 books on a restricted list pending further review. Now, students looking to check these books out will need parental consent.

“I think that we were very complacent as parents,” Beckham said. “We were not nearly as involved as we should have been. We didn’t know what was being taught in our schools. We didn’t know what was being implemented in our schools.”

Enter MassResistance

For many in Mississippi, the first exposure to the book challenges, bans and restrictions sweeping across the nation came early this year, when the Mississippi Free Press reported Madison County Library System’s Executive Director Tonja Johnson’s warning that Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee had withheld $110,000 from the Ridgeland Public Library. Johnson alleged that the mayor had demanded a purge of all LGBTQ+ books before releasing the funding.

The mayor has repeatedly denied that his goal was any kind of book purge. In the months-long contract debate that ensued, disagreement over the content of Ridgeland’s library and how it was supposedly displayed spilled out into the public at Ridgeland Board of Aldermen meetings.

There, Beckham introduced herself as the local point of contact for the group MassResistance, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designated as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate organization. It has repeatedly made headlines in towns across America for vociferous opposition to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content in the public sphere.

But in Monday’s interview, Beckham said it was the mayor who put her in contact with MassResistance to begin with. 

“We met with Mayor McGee, myself and five others. And while we were in that meeting with Mayor McGee, he called a man from MassResistance on speakerphone. We talked to him. We had never heard of MassResistance. We did not know what they were. I think they had maybe been talking already,” Beckham explained.

Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee distanced himself from MassResistance, and expressed support for the conclusion to the Ridgeland Public Library dispute. Photo by Nick Judin.

The mayor, Beckham continued, helped establish the communication that was to follow between local parents and activists who would later arrive at the Ridgeland Board of Aldermen meeting in support of the mayor’s decision to withhold funding from the library system. 

“Mayor McGee gave (Schaper) our email addresses and asked if one of us would be willing to keep this man informed as to what was going on,” she said.

Beckham says she did—speaking to Schaper several times over the following weeks before the aldermen met to discuss the dispute.

While Beckham acknowledges the interactions between herself and MassResistance, she strongly distanced herself from the group and any calls to remove, censor or ban books from libraries or school systems. “That is absolutely not our stance. We did not ask for books to be removed from the library. The only thing we wanted was for there not to be a big display, as soon as you walk in, with books that were inappropriate for children,” Beckham said, referring to a large display of new books that included some LGBTQ+ books, including The Queer Bible, a series of essays on famous LGBTQ+ individuals.

Since learning about MassResistance’s ideology, Beckham says she wants nothing more to do with them. “I’ve got somebody working on something I can send them in writing to say ‘you are not allowed to use my name or this group ever again, because we don’t want to be associated with you.’”

‘In All Its Perverse Forms’

Mayor McGee, in a Monday interview with the Mississippi Free Press, also took pains to distance himself from MassResistance, casting any effort on his part to make connections for the group as brief and casual.

“I am not associated with (MassResistance) in any way,” McGee said. “I think I probably did tell Lindsey she might want to reach out to them … from what you see on Facebook, it looks like that’s some kind of national group. That’s all I really know about them.”

Arthur Schaper, organization director of MassResistance, has a different take on the relationship than McGee does, saying that he reached out to McGee after hearing news of the funding freeze.

“I can’t speak to what he wants to do going forward,” Schaper said in an interview on Monday. “I just know he was grateful for our help and that he did what he could to incorporate the suggestions we advised.” And that advice, Schaper continued, was to stand as a bulwark against “perversion” in Ridgeland. “We advised him and other city council members, as much as possible, to take a stand against perverted books … to not promote the perversion of minors and LGBT perversion.”

Schaper, in his conversation with the Mississippi Free Press, did not couch his language, taking a maximalist view of the movement against LGBTQ+ individuals and populations—even the concept of queer identities.

“For almost 30 years MassResistance has been fighting the LGBT agenda in all of its perverse forms,” Schaper said. “Homosexuality is a destructive behavior. It’s not an identity. Transgenderism is a mental illness, not a benign eccentricity. For 30 years this destructive political movement has tried to normalize these behaviors. It went from the bedroom to the boardroom to the classroom. It corrupts public morals and undermines the innocence of children.”

To that end, Schaper is bitterly disappointed with the resolution of the Ridgeland Public Library saga. The conflict between the library board and the city recently came to a conclusion with a restoration of the library contract and a final memorandum of understanding between the two parties. That memorandum enshrines the ultimate independence of the library board to determine what content remains on the shelves.

“To my knowledge, there was an initial memorandum of understanding that would have given authority for the local government to say ‘we want parents to have more power,’ and a streamlined process to challenge and remove obscene books. … It was about restoring community standards,” Schaper said.

Schaper also rejects the notion that his organization, which is predicated on opposition to legal and social inclusion of queer identities and relationships, is a hate group, charging the Southern Poverty Law Center, which maintains a comprehensive list of hate groups, of itself being a hate organization. He asks reporters not to report SPLC’s hate designation of his group.

McGee rejected the idea that he had taken any advice from Schaper or MassResistance. “We were already in the middle of negotiations (with the library board) to get things squared away,” he explained. “So we were not using his personal advice, even though he was trying to give us some.” 

After months of friction and debate, Madison County Library System Executive Director Tonja Johnson and Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee have agreed on a memorandum of understanding and a library contract. Photo by Nick Judin

At times, the mayor seemed agitated by the imposition of outside involvement in Ridgeland’s affairs. “He did give advice,” McGee continued about Schaper. “We listened, and I said ‘thank you.’ And you know, I’m trying to work through this thing without a bunch of outside people trying to tell us what to do. And that’s what we did.”

In response, this reporter asked McGee if Schaper was overstating his role in the Ridgeland Public Library debate. “Yeah, I guess you could put it that way,” the mayor said. “He’s not in Mississippi. He’s not in our shoes and he’s not seeing everything we see.”

MassResistance may be disappointed with the conclusion of the library debate in Ridgeland, but McGee sees the issue as resolved—and in the past.

“The board of aldermen never asked for anything to do with content at all,” McGee said, contradicting Schaper. “They worked very hard with the attorney for the library (Bob Sanders) and the director (Tonja Johnson). And came up with a (memorandum of understanding) that everybody agrees on. So there obviously were negotiations going on, but they never intended to control content.”

Now that the revised agreement between the City of Ridgeland and the Madison County Library System is in place, the mayor said, both parties “can share and have chances to be sure that everybody’s on the same page.”

“I think they’ve done a good job. Now we just need to move forward.”

This article initially identified Arthur Schaper as director of the California chapter of MassResistance. His correct title is organization director. The article has been updated.

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