Billionaire industrialist and conservative political mega-donor Charles Koch first entered the political world through the John Birch Society, a secretive anti-Communist outfit that campaigned against the civil-rights movement. Since then, he and his brother David amassed enormous wealth and put together a powerful conservative political network that rivals either major party in size and funding.
A new report from activist group UnKoch My Campus shows that Charles Koch’s ties to white supremacy have persisted throughout his adult life. The report details an array of instances where Koch has funded neo-Confederate scholars—a largely unnoticed aspect of the Koch Industries CEO’s ambitious project of funding higher education. Most alarming is a collaboration between Florida Atlantic University, the Charles Koch Foundation, and a major private-prison company, which is led by a professor who was a member of the research arm of a white-nationalist hate group.
While raking in corporate profits as the head of the family’s oil-refining business since the mid-1960s, Charles Koch and his top tactician, Richard Fink, developed a “Structure of Social Change,” which they would deploy to pull America as far to the right on taxes and regulations as they could. Koch, a libertarian, had resigned from the John Birch Society after opposing its position on the Vietnam War, and created a regressive sphere of influence. The first step in this strategy was funding higher education, because, as he said at a 1974 gathering of the Institute for Humane Studies, now a George Mason University center that he finances and directs, “educational programs are superior to political action, and support of talented free-market scholars is preferable to mass advertising.”
Koch and his family foundations have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to colleges and universities around the United States. In 2013, the Charles Koch Foundation began donating to Florida Atlantic University, offering $5,000 that year. By 2016, the annual donation had risen to $32,000.
Marshall DeRosa, who runs a prison-education program with financial backing from the Koch Foundation, is a Florida Atlantic University political-science professor who has written extensively on the Confederacy. He also has ties to its modern remnants.
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From 2000 until at least 2009, according to archived web pages, DeRosa was a “faculty member” at the League of the South Institute, the “educational arm of the Southern independence movement” where “the South’s finest unreconstructed scholars” taught summer institutes and seminars. The LOS Institute acts as the charitable nonprofit of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a neo-Confederate hate group, and supports a second Southern secession in order to form a nation ruled by “Anglo-Celtic” people.
The LOS was co-founded in 1994 by an original member of the Center for Libertarian Studies, which was launched in 1976 with seed money from Charles Koch. Michael Tubbs, a white nationalist who once stockpiled military weapons and planned to target businesses owned by African Americans and Jews, is still the current chairman of the Florida LOS chapter, according to Newsweek, and has appeared at the side of LOS president Michael Hill as recently as January 2018. In 1987, Hill and three accomplices called themselves “guardians of the gene pool.”
The League of the South Institute is “the educational branch of the Mary Noel Kershaw Foundation,” named after the wife of the late Jack Kershaw, longtime leader within the violent White Citizens Council and founding board member of the League of the South. In 1998, Kershaw erected a statue of Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest and declared, “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery. Where in the world are the Negroes better off today than in America?”
Recently, LOS was a prominent white-nationalist force at the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hill, a board member of the Kershey Foundation, had told supporters to prepare for violence. Another LOS member was charged in January for brutally beating a 20-year-old black man at the rally.
Regarding his LOS affiliation, DeRosa told The Nation, “That was a long time ago. I disengaged early on. They’d invite me to things and I’d go to talk about my scholarship, especially the Confederate constitution, but I got an inkling as to some of the characters involved…. I didn’t feel comfortable.”
Experts on hate groups have a different view. “The LOS was different when DeRosa was involved, not as militant, but it still had very, very bad racial views,” said Heidi Beirich, an expert on right-wing extremism and director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “He can’t scurry away from the fact that for a long time he was a member of a group that had white-supremacist views.”
DeRosa isn’t the only former LOS Institute academic in the Koch higher-ed network. The founder of the institute, Donald Livingston, who served on the Institute for Humane Studies Academic Review Committee—which grants Koch’s “Humane Studies Fellowships” (originally “Claude R. Lambe Fellowships”)—from 1996 to 1999, has stayed in the network’s orbit. Last spring, he lectured at an Institute for Humane Studies seminar at George Mason University.
Thomas DiLorenzo, an “affiliated scholar” of the LOS Institute as recently as 2008, was an economics professor in George Mason University and worked on policy for the Koch-funded, libertarian Cato Institute. In 2005, several years after the Southern Poverty Law Center classified LOS as a hate group, he defended the organization, writing that it “advocates peace and prosperity in the tradition of a George Washington or a Thomas Jefferson.”
DeRosa and DiLorenzo taught a three-day LOS “summer school” together in 2000 on topics including “Why secession was, and is, constitutional” and “How the ‘Fourteenth Amendment’ was never constitutionally passed by Congress nor ratified by the States.”
Not long after SPLC labeled the LOS a hate group in the early 2000s, Livingston left the LOS Institute and founded its successor, the Abbeville Institute, named after the birthplace of fierce slavery advocate John Calhoun, and is still president. (DiLorenzo is currently affiliated with the Abbeville Institute, as well.) In 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed the Abbeville Institute a place where scholars “nostalgic for the Old South” went to “study the virtues of secession.” The Chronicle reported that Abbeville scholars argued that the Civil War, or “the War of Northern Aggression,” was “not about slavery…and that the antebellum Southern states had every right to secede.”
Beirich said that while Livingston did leave the LOS when it became especially extreme, “he runs his own incredibly neo-Confederate institute…. A question [for the Koch Foundation] is, why are you affiliated with a person like that? His position is not a serious historical position. The South did not just fight for states’ rights—it was about slavery. These are distorted views of history.”
Several former LOS scholars are also part of the Mises Institute, a think tank formed in 1982 that the Southern Poverty Law Center says has “strong neo-Confederate principles.” Its founder, Lewis Rockwell, argued that the Civil War “transformed the American regime from a federalist system based on freedom to a centralized state that circumscribed liberty in the name of public order.”
At least nine Mises Institutes scholars have worked with LOS, according to the UnKoch report, and Mises employs several Koch-funded academics. Mises scholars collectively received $12.5 million in academic funding from the Charles Koch Foundation between 2005 and 2016.
“Through their support for these faculty, the Koch Foundation is subsidizing and strengthening an already booming wave of violent, alt-right anarcho-capitalists,” said Ralph Wilson, the UnKoch report’s author and the group’s co-founder.
When asked for detailed comment about several aspects of this reporting, the Koch Foundation issued a two-sentence reply to The Nation: “The Charles Koch Foundation’s criminal justice reform work is rooted in the principles of human dignity. We do not tolerate racism in any shape or form.”
The prison-to-white-supremacy pipeline
But Florida Atlantic students aren’t the only minds that DeRosa is being paid to shape. After getting commitments from the Koch Foundation and GEO Group, one of the world’s largest private-prison companies, DeRosa got state certification for a pilot program, the Inmate Civics Education Enhancement Project. He taught the first class at a South Bay, Florida, GEO Group prison in 2015.
“It’s disturbing that people of color might be exposed to neo-Confederate ideas in prison,” said Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If you’re going to find someone to teach in prisons you’d think you could find someone who wasn’t involved with a neo-Confederate hate group.”
Meanwhile, at least four GEO Group executives have served on the Florida Atlantic University board of trustees. GEO Group had an agreement with FAU to donate $6 million to the university in 2013 in exchange for naming rights over the football stadium, but it was withdrawn because it sparked significant controversy. “GEO is very much committed to recidivism. They have a reentry program. They’re amazing,” said DeRosa.
The Koch Foundation offered a one-time grant for the pilot program, said DeRosa, which was extended twice because of the program’s success. The money funded graduate students to teach alongside DeRosa at the prison. What began as one course became four: civics, economics, ethics, and literature. Now the money has run out, said DeRosa, and he’s planning to apply for more.
The ICEEP purports to be an effort to reduce recidivism, which is common among ex-prisoners. But DeRosa suggested in a spring 2017 James Madison Institute journal that an additional goal may be to convert felons in prison, who are more likely to vote for Democrats, to conservatism and then re-enfranchise them. In the article, he noted that “if conservatives were to rally around a practical reform-minded approach that looked to restore rights to those who have completed civics programming while incarcerated, the results would be to expose thousands of new voters to the very constitutional principles which conservatives hold dear.” The James Madison Institute, which received $226,000 from the Koch Foundation in 2016, is a partner of the ICEEP.
DeRosa denied having any partisan agenda, saying his only point was that conservatives “have it all wrong,” and that once inmates have paid their debt to society, they should have the right to vote. “My objective is to reduce recidivism and get them as leaders in their communities,” he said.
Ex-felons are generally not allowed to vote in Florida, but a judge ruled against aspects of the felon-disenfranchisement law on February 1, making re-enfranchisement more of a possibility. Floridians will vote in November on a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn the state’s disenfranchisement law.
DeRosa says his first prison class was popular, so he applied for additional Koch Foundation money to teach two classes the following year. As of 2016, there were 36 “graduates” of the program, according to GEO Group PR. That year, Koch grant money to Florida Atlantic University quadrupled.
Wilson, the UnKoch report’s author said Koch’s free-market ideology might fit into DeRosa’s federalist and neo-Confederate views. “Koch and DeRosa both subscribe to a fierce version of anarcho-capitalism that views civil rights, and any other government ‘intervention,’ as an overreach of the state,” he said. “DeRosa is simply more honest than Koch about the roots and implications of these beliefs.”
The reality of the situation is staggering: An academic who worked with a neo-Confederate organization is teaching inmates, including many of color, a curriculum he designed, funded by one of the wealthiest conservative political donors in the country and instituted at the facilities of a notorious, predatory private-prison company that is accused of violating federal anti-slavery laws.
In recent years, the Koch brothers hired a public relations firm to help them improve their lagging image as politically polarizing plutocrats. Koch Industries came out with a new motto, “We are Koch,” and the Koch Foundation made a $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund. The rebrand included shifting their language around cuts to welfare programs, recasting these ideas as the promotion of “well-being.”
While Charles Koch poses as a virtuous billionaire who wants to help ex-felons and welcome immigrants, Koch is funding neo-Confederate academics. Students—whether in prison or a college classroom—should know who their teachers are, and who’s pulling the strings.