Ch. 4: Koch Network's Anti-Civil Rights Crusade


Part 1: Opposition to Brown v. Board of Education

The Brown v. Board of Education case was argued and won by a Thurgood Marshall. This lends Koch’s activities with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund a special irony, given that Koch’s family and friends spent over a decade trying to defeat desegregation.

Charles Koch joined the John Birch Society in 1961. According to a profile in Time Magazine that year, their top priority was the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren (The Americanists, Time Mar. 10, 1961).

JBS sponsored “Impeach Warren” billboards across Kansas, and elsewhere, clarifying in print that the Brown v. Board (a case originating in Kansas) ruling was foremost among the "Grounds For Impeachment":

As obviously we cannot give any extensive survey of [Warren’s] misconduct, we shall have to touch on just two or three of the most flagrant examples.  And one, of course, is the infamous decision of May 17, 1954, in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which set off the storm over integration...And this decision was, we believe, the most brazen and flagrant usurpation of power that has been seen, in any major court in the whole Anglo-American system of jurisprudence, in three hundred years. (JBS Bulletin, pg 15-16, January 1, 1961)

More broadly, the John Birch Society spread segregationist literature through its national network of American Opinion bookshops, like the one run by Charles Koch in Wichita. These bookstores spread the work of segregationist authors including Rosalie Gordon, James Kilpatrick, and Dan Smoot.

In 1961--the year Charles Koch joined--JBS distributed Robert Welch’s “Letter to the South on Segregation,” which claimed that the “easy-going colored man” of the South was being “misled by agitators.” Welch advocated resistance to the Brown v. Board decision, including “legal maneuvers to block its impact” and “state contributions to private schools” whereby white families could resist integration through “segregation academies,” now known as charter schools (Welch, pg 4-9).

These voucher programs became the crux of a legal strategy known as “Freedom of Choice” that was used by southern states that were resisting desegregation.

Free-market economist (and Koch network icon) Milton Friedman. Friedman, as early as 1955 in The Role of Government in Education, wrote of his unwavering support for school choice despite its use to resist desegregation:

the relevant test of the belief in individual freedom is the willingness to oppose state intervention even when it is designed to prevent individual activity of a kind one thoroughly dislikes. I deplore segregation and racial prejudice; pursuant to the principles set forth at the outset of the paper, it is clearly an appropriate function of the state to prevent the use of violence and physical coercion by one group on another; equally clearly, it is not an appropriate function of the state to try to force individuals to act in accordance with my--or anyone else's--views, whether about racial prejudice or the party to vote for, so long as the action of any one individual affects mostly himself. These are the grounds on which I oppose the proposed Fair Employment Practices Commissions; and they lead me equally to oppose forced nonsegregation. (Friedman, 1955)

Longtime Koch funded economist, James Buchanan, was instrumental in making the case for the public being able to be “free to choose” school vouchers, or “tuition grants,” while at the University of Virginia. In a 1959 paper, Buchanan proposes a “system of privately operated schools,” including for-profit schools, and discusses the ethical problems with the “involuntary integration” of schools, calling it “coercive” (Buchanan, 1959). Buchanan would later develop these ideas into broader economic theory propagated by Koch’s academic network, known as “public choice theory” (Fleury and Marciano, 2016).

In 1964, the Supreme Court’s  Green v. New Kent County School Board ruled that voluntary implementations of Brown v. Board, or ”Freedom of Choice,” actually protected segregation and violated the equal protection clause.