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Inside Alabama’s library war: Clean Up Alabama’s political ties and Read Freely’s roots

Clean Up Alabama’s political connections clash with Read Freely Alabama’s grassroots advocacy over library content.

The logos of Read Freely Alabama and Clean Up Alabama.
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For people unfamiliar with the full timeline of Alabama’s library battles, Clean Up Alabama and Read Freely Alabama may appear to be two statewide entities that have merely latched onto the fight.

But both of these organizations formed organically in Prattville, at least from what outsiders can see. At least two right-wing media outlets, 1819 News and 93.1 FM WACV Montgomery, have insinuated that Read Freely Alabama receives “assistance from out-of-state entities” and that “outside sources” were going to help them “fight back with our abilities, our money.”

APR reached out to both Clean Up Alabama and Read Freely Alabama to review each group’s financials, and Read Freely provided their information. Clean Up Alabama did not respond to APR’s request.

Additionally, APR has conducted research into the beginnings of each group, including Clean Up Alabama’s ties to Moms for Liberty, Eagle Forum, the Alabama Republican Party and perhaps most importantly, two organizations spawned by the conservative think tank Alabama Policy Institute.

From the beginning, Clean Up Alabama has had political operatives in the mix

Clean Up Alabama originated with a group of parents including Hannah Rees (now executive director), Audrey Strong, Chuk Shirley, Wil and Sarah Sanchez, Matt and Laura Clark, and DJ Parten among others.

The group that would become Clean Up Alabama became more widely known when, on April 18, 2023, 1819 News writer Craig Monger wrote about an anonymous group of Prattville mothers challenging LGBTQ+ content in children’s books. At this point, the only challenged books were related to LGBTQ+ content, plus a book about non-sexual consent. Since the moms were anonymous, it is unclear who was involved in the group at this point.

Rees took her issue citywide in May 2023, appearing before the council without any significant backup, and outnumbered by citizens opposed to moving books.

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That changed at the next council meeting, where important players including the Clarks and Parten entered the scene.

Laura Clark went on to become the attorney advising the APPL board, and her husband Matt had been more involved before taking a position as a senior staff attorney under Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker in July 2023.

While it’s not clear whether the Clarks were involved before this meeting, they are intimately connected to 1819 News—Matt Clark was, at the time, the president of the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty. Both 1819 News and the ACLL are offshoots of the Alabama Policy Institute, and both Clarks have been regular legal columnists for the site.

There’s also DJ Parten, who has only spoken out twice, but whose presence at this initial meeting raises questions about potential dark money connections.

Parten took fire from Republican leaders in the House for running attack ads against lawmakers who voted in favor of a bill establishing VF protections. Parten is the Alabama state director for Young Americans for Liberty and was identified as a founder of the American Action Fund by lawmakers. He also founded End Abortion Alabama, an organization that has pushed for women who abort children to be held criminally liable for homicide.

“We don’t know who is funding this shadowy group because they do not register with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office and they do not disclose the source of the funding of these ads on any Alabama Campaign Finance Report,” wrote House Majority Leader Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, in an opinion column. “DJ Parten, a man who sometimes claims to represent this group in the halls of the State House, often drifts from state to state across the Southeast leaving a trail of vitriol and bizarre statements in his wake.”

Several of the group’s leaders—Rees, the Sanchezes, Shirley, and Strong—are not clearly connected directly to any political operations, other than their associations with some of their Clean Up colleagues.

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Clean Up is a Moms for Liberty copycat group

Despite Chuk Shirley seemingly struggling to remember the name of “Moms for Liberty” during a Prattville City Council meeting, the well-known extremist conservative group has been tied to Clean Up Alabama since at least July 2023. APR reported in August about a July email from the group quoting Adolf Hitler, in an apparent attempt to paint “the other side” as Hitler. This same quote put an Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty in hot water months before Clean Up used the same language, apparently ripping from the more well-known group’s email blasts. Clean Up later recirculated the same email with the Hitler quote removed.

There was also a Freudian slip made at the ALGOP Summer Dinner in August 2023, when Paul Reynolds (Republican Nation Convention committeeman for the state of Alabama at the time) said that the Southern Poverty Law Center “has labeled these moms as terrorists.” There is no designation of Clean Up Alabama as a hate group by the SPLC; but the organization has labeled Moms for Liberty as an extremist group.

And when the Autauga County Commission finished appointing its four members to the Prattville library board in December, it was a Moms for Liberty Facebook group where Rees went to celebrate: “That means we have 4 of the 7 and have the majority!!!!”

At some point, Lori Herring of Eagle Forum became involved with the group, and claims that Clean Up Alabama is actually a partnership between “Clean Up Prattville” and Eagle Forum.

Read Freely, dubbed “radical LGBT lobby” by Clean Up, appears to be a true grassroots organization

While implications have been made by right-wing media that Read Freely Alabama has been propped up by out-of-state interests, APR has found no evidence of that claim.

The closest match is a fiscal sponsorship from an organization called “EveryLibrary.”

Angie Hayden, cofounder of Read Freely, explained to APR that the organization does not even have a bank account, relying purely on reimbursement of expenses from two EveryLibrary fundraising campaigns or Read Freely members covering expenses out of personal monies.

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None of the members of Read Freely Alabama are paid, Hayden said.

Two public fundraising pages show about $3,800 in funds raised to help the organization in its awareness efforts. Each individual donation is backed by a name. The largest donation came from the Auburn Universalist Unitarian Fellowship at an amount of $464.

The majority of donations range from $25 to $100 and the two campaigns have had about 50 backers between them.

The group also raised money through GoFundMe for librarians fired or forced to resign at the Autauga-Prattville Public Library.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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