Virginia candidate for governor accused of ‘racist dog whistle’ over Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’

Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, now running for reelection, vetoed bills like the one Glenn Youngkin's ad supports, allowing parents to opt out on certain books.

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In his latest election ad, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, has enlisted the support of a Fairfax County mother, who, in 2013, launched a campaign against the seminal Toni Morrison novel, Beloved.

Laura Murphy, a conservative activist, claimed that the book gave her son — then a high-school senior — night terrors. She is featured in one of Youngkin’s new commercials, telling the story of how she fought to require the Fairfax County school board to notify parents if their child’s reading list included “objectionable material,” giving parents the option to opt out or replace a book.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (right) shake hands at the conclusion of their final debate last month in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The measure was defeated, but Murphy pursued her goal, eventually securing support in the Republican-led general assembly. In 2016, a bill that would allow parents to opt out of “sexually explicit” material passed, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who is running for reelection to a non-consecutive term.

“[McAuliffe] doesn’t think parents should have a say. He said that. He shut us out,” Murphy says in the political ad. “Glenn Youngkin, he listens. He understands parents matter.”

Had the bill passed, it would have made Virginia the first state to allow parents to block children from reading sexually explicit material in schools. According to a CBS News report, McAuliffe said at the time, “[b]ecause the Board of Education is already considering this issue in a broader and more complete context, I believe House Bill 516 is unnecessary.”

A similar bill was passed in 2017, which McAuliffe also vetoed.

At a rally Tuesday night, McAuliffe, who was joined by President Joe Biden, said of his opponent’s assertions: “This is his closing message. Glenn Youngkin is promoting banning books by one of America’s most prominent Black authors. Just the fact he is even discussing this brings shame here to the commonwealth of Virginia.”

In a previous response to the ad, the former governor called the ad a “racist dog whistle” being used “to gin up support from the most extreme elements of his party.”

Beloved is considered Morrison’s seminal work. The novel — and subsequent film adaptation in 1998 — captures the horrors of slavery and features scenes of rape, murder, even bestiality. It is one of the books that propelled Morrison, who died in 2019, to be recognized with a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Louise Lucas, the president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, told CNN that she hopes the Democrats who supported the bill have “learned the lesson over time” and now regret that support. She agreed that Youngkin’s push to ban books is an effort to take Virginia “back to a time when the works and the progress of Black people will not be recognized.”

However, Republicans, including Youngkin, dispute that the issue is racial. Kay Cole James, former Fairfax County School Board member and president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, “It shows to me sheer desperation at this point in the campaign to try to paint this that way.”

“Don’t take your eye off the ball,” she added. “African American parents want to be involved in their children’s education just as much as anyone else.”

Virginia’s former governor decried the GOP’s efforts.

“I really get sick and tired of people like Glenn Youngkin and Donald Trump. They constantly are dividing people. They’re constantly turning people against one another,” McAuliffe said in an interview with CNN earlier this month. “And why are we doing this to our students? All we want to do is give them a quality education.”

The gubernatorial election is Nov. 2.

As for Murphy, her son, Ryan, who suffered “night terrors” after reading Beloved, has since gone on to become an attorney. Now 27, he is the associate general counsel for the Washington D.C.-based National Republican Congressional Committee.

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