Race and the John Birch Society
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
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This dissertation aims to uncover why the John Birch Society, since its early beginnings, has carried the label racist when the JBS firmly maintains it never considered race. While it could be that the JBS leadership has attempted through its decades-long history to obfuscate its true intentions with coded racial appeals, this explanation seems too simplistic. The discrepancy between the JBS’s position and that of others believing the JBS a racist organization is the product of a distinction between the organization’s intent and outsiders’ perceptions of how the JBS operationalized its intent. If the language of the JBS did not specifically highlight race, it seems likely that its members’ actions can account for how the organization ultimately became so firmly linked to the racist and radical label. In order to understand better how the media associated the JBS with racism, this dissertation examines the John Birch Society from its founding in December 1958 through 1964, along with the media coverage, U.S. and Soviet political influences, and JBS activities that shaped how Americans understood, and still understand, the Society. The chapters that follow also examine the JBS rhetoric and its grassroots appeal to uncover how race became related to the JBS when it never explicitly stood for white supremacy or segregation. Most works on the JBS examine the organization from the top down and focus on its leader Robert Welch. Considered in aggregate, these narratives claim the JBS was an authoritarian organization that grew to its strongest in 1964. This dissertation examines media coverage and Robert Welch’s responses to the actions of specific JBS members along with the JBS leadership’s position on the Civil Rights Movement to determine why so many Americans view the JBS as a racist organization. Even while Robert Welch repeatedly stated that the Society policed its own ranks, removing anyone identified as a racist, the day-to-day operations of the JBS limited Welch’s oversight of the local chapters and the activities of its members at the grassroots. By examining JBS members’ actions, Robert Welch’s responses to those actions, and evaluating the impact of the rhetoric of anticommunism, states’ rights, and individual responsibility, this dissertation more clearly illuminates the JBS’s positions on civil rights and anticommunism and its appeal to a large number of Americans within, and outside, the JBS.