1. The John Birch Society
The John Birch Society (JBS) is a free market extremist organization founded in 1958.
A 1961 Time Magazine profile mentions Koch family ties to the John Birch Society, called “the most formidable of the extremist groups”:
Under the umbrella of anti-Communism, many of the ultra-rightists pursue their own special goals and grind their own axes, ranging from respectable conservative politics and economics through segregation, anti-fluoridation, isolationism, higher tariffs and income tax repeal. . . . "The United Nations," says Wichita Oilman Fred Koch, "was conceived by Communists in Moscow during World War II." (Originations: The Ultras, Time Magazine, 1961)
The John Birch Society was founded in 1958. From 1961 to 1968, Charles Koch himself was an active JBS member. His father, Fred Koch, was an early member of their national council. The late Harry Bradley, of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, supported Robert Welch as a charter JBS member.
JBS spread anti-civil rights propaganda and literature through a network of “front groups” and “front businesses.” Charles Koch was active with his local JBS “American Opinion Bookstore” in Wichita, Kansas.
The founder of the John Birch Society, Robert Welch, wrote in 1961 that the Civil Rights Movement was a communist hoax:
The trouble in our southern states has been fomented almost entirely by the Communists for this purpose. It has been their plan, gradually carried out over a long period with meticulous cunning, to stir up such bitterness between whites and blacks in the South that small flames of civil disorder would inevitably result. They could then fan and coalesce these little flames into one great conflagration of civil war, in time, if the need arose. The whole slogan of "civil rights, " as used to make trouble in the South today, is an exact parallel to the slogan of "agrarian reform" which they used in China. (JBS Bluebook 1961, pg 24)
In his 1960 book, “A Businessman Looks at Communism,” Fred Koch observes that “the colored man looms large in the communist plan to take over America.”
JBS took out ads in newspapers that sought to explain to Americans “What’s Wrong With Civil Rights.” These ads claimed that the the Civil Rights Movement was an “exaggerated problem,” and that “[t]he average American Negro has a tremendously higher material standard of living than Negroes anywhere else.” They denounced the Civil Rights Movement as a communist led effort with “no slightest interest in really improving the lot of the American Negroes, but only in using the Negroes and the racial problem to promote Communist purposes.”
In 1963, when police in the south were violently suppressing civil rights activists, the push for local civilian review boards for police was countered by JBS’s “Support Your Local Police” campaign, opposing the “leftist-inspired local police review boards” as an attempt to “nationalize the police.” They cite extremist Cleon Skousen’s book, The Communist Attack on the U.S. Police.
The “Support Your Local Police” campaign exists to this day, including a 2016 speaking tour of James Fitzgerald, who JBS notes was accused of undermining civilian review boards as early as the 1960s. The current Support Your Local Police campaign focuses on smearing Black Lives Matter activists, accusing them of being paid protestors, “Marxists,” “street thugs,” and part of a “national plan” to murder police.
Charles Koch left the John Birch Society in 1968, after his colleague, Bob Love, was expelled for an ad that he and Koch took out against the Vietnam war (which JBS supported at that time).
Regardless, Koch continued to work closely with JBS members, and sometimes JBS itself.
John Birch Society Influence On Koch’s Higher Ed Strategy
Koch’s John Birch Society colleagues influenced his early thought and strategy for leveraging universities for political change. In 1976 Koch sponsored and presented at the launch of the Center for Libertarian Studies in New York, where:
George Pearson, a former member of the John Birch Society in Wichita, who served as Charles Koch’s political lieutenant during these years, expanded on this strategy in his own eye- opening paper. He suggested that libertarians needed to mobilize youthful cadres by influencing academia in new ways. Traditional gifts to universities, he warned, didn’t guarantee enough ideological control. Instead, he advocated funding private institutes within prestigious universities, where influence over hiring decisions and other forms of control could be exerted by donors while hiding the radicalism of their aims. As [Clayton] Coppin summarized Pearson’s arguments, “It would be necessary to use ambiguous and misleading names, obscure the true agenda, and conceal the means of control. This is the method that Charles Koch would soon practice in his charitable giving, and later in his political actions.” [Mayer, Dark Money, pg 56.]
As the longtime Director of Public Affairs at Koch Industries, Pearson spent decades laying the groundwork for Charles Koch’s academic-political strategy. In addition to heading up Koch’s charitable foundations, Pearson was an officer at Koch’s Institute for Humane Studies and co-founded the Cato Institute with Charles Koch.
While there is reason to suspect Charles Koch did not endorse all of the positions of the John Birch Society, his remarks at the 1976 conference offered JBS as a model of political change, with some modifications from his past experiences, including how JBS could have been more successful by constructively engaging media. He lauded its secretive operation, writing that “in order to avoid undesirable criticism, how the organization is controlled and directed should not be widely advertised” (Mayer, Dark Money, pg 55).
Current Ties To JBS
As recently as 2014, the Charles Koch Institute and the John Birch Society co-sponsored the Florida Liberty Summit. Other donors included Koch’s political front groups (Americans for Prosperity and Generation Opportunity), think tanks (Heritage Foundation, James Madison Institute, Reason Foundation), and many Koch’ funded campus oriented groups: (Institute for Humane Studies, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, The Fund for American Studies, the Leadership Institute, and Students for Liberty).
2. Koch Attends Segregated “Freedom School”
Charles Koch met Robert LeFevre through Robert Love and the Wichita John Birch Society. ,It was at LeFevre’s private school that Charles Koch was introduced to Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek (Mayer, Dark Money, pp 45-46). According to Mayer:
the school taught a revisionist version of American history in which the robber barons were heroes, not villains, and the Gilded Age was the country’s golden era. [...] The school had a revisionist position on the Civil War, too. It shouldn’t have been fought, instead, the South should have been allowed to secede. Slavery was a lesser evil than military conscription, the school argued, because human beings should be allowed to sell themselves into slavery if they wished.” (pg 44).
Daniel Schulman’s 2014 biography, Sons of Wichita, described segregation at LeFevre’s Freedom School:
LeFevre held a special seminar, “Explorations in Human Action,” for business executives that focused on “management and labor relations problems.” The school invited participants to bring their wives, but warned that “they would be excluded from class discussions, though they may sit in as observers.” (They weren’t the only ones excluded from participation. In 1965, LeFevre told The New York Times that his school had yet to admit a black person; finding accommodations for them, he said, might prove challenging because of the segregationists among the student body.) (pg 95)
Charles Koch was an enthusiastic advocate of the Freedom School, recruiting all three of his brothers to attend sessions. After graduating, Koch become an executive, trustee, and donor to the Freedom School (Schulman, Sons of Wichita, pg 92; Mayer, Dark Money, pg 43).
Koch and LeFevre were eventually estranged, before LeFevre’s death in 1986, although Koch continued to credit him into the 1990’s for introducing him to Austrian economics. (Schulman, pg 96; Mayer, pg 46).
In Part 3 of this chapter, we explore the deeper problems with Koch's JBS affiliations, namely their ties to violent white supremacist groups during the time that Charles Koch was active.