The right-wing John Birch Society is hoping to return to relevancy by riding the wave of anger against coronavirus prevention measures.
A recent "Parents In The Park" protest in Knoxville, Tennessee, was organized and hosted by the far-right organization that peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, when it opposed civil rights legislation and the Equal Rights Amendment, but the group was forced to back away from one speaker's call for parents to block entry to their children's schools, reported The Daily Beast.
"While we disagree with all mask mandates, we do not endorse blocking schools or impeding anyone's ability to access them in any way," said Paul Dragu, who confirmed a fellow member had organized the event. "The official JBS stance is that instead of struggling against public schools, parents should immediately abandon them altogether."
Event organizer Jon Schrock, a field director for the group's Tennessee chapter, also disavowed the speaker's call to physically block schools and instead called to defund the Department of Education.
"We are calling for the shutdown of the schools via funding, so his comments would not be in line with what we would be calling for," Shrock told The Daily Beast.
The John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by candy magnate Robert Welch Jr., has long waged its reactionary war against liberalism through public schools, with high-profile fights against desegregation, affirmative action and the creation of ethnic and Black studies programs, and the organization has paid for anti-mask billboards in Spokane, Washington, and prioritized masking as "the most divisive issue of 2020."
"I think in the 2000s, they saw an opportunity, first with the rise of the Tea Party then the alt-right and Trump Republicanism," said Darren Mulloy, a history professor Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University and author of a book on the JBS. "I think they saw a shift in the culture that they believed would help them revive their politics. I think they made a concerted effort to push themselves forward and make themselves more relevant. I would imagine these anti-mask protests are part of that ongoing effort to rebuild itself."
Despite denials from JBS officials, protesters at the demonstrations linked to the group have blocked school entrances and harassed students on their way to classes.
"Many of its concerns have been already subsumed and articulated through right-wing Republicanism and Trump Republicanism," Mulloy said. "There's less of a need for an independent organization pushing the far-right politics of the John Birch Society. It's actually much more prevalent in the culture."