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Charles Koch compares work of his political network to civil rights movement

(Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

DANA POINT, Calif. — Charles Koch on Sunday compared the efforts of his political network to the fight for civil rights and other “freedom movements,” urging his fellow conservative donors to follow the lead of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr.

“History demonstrates that when the American people get motivated by an issue of justice that they believe is just, extraordinary things can be accomplished,” Koch told 450 wealthy conservatives assembled in the ballroom of a lavish oceanfront resort here.

“Look at the American revolution, the anti-slavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement,” he said. “All of these struck a moral chord with the American people. They all sought to overcome an injustice. And we, too, are seeking to right injustices that are holding our country back.”

Koch’s remarks came at the start of a session about the strategy of the network, which aims to spend $889 million on issue advocacy, higher education grants and political activity by the end of next year. As part of the program, which was not open to the news media, officials from Chile gave presentations on the country’s economic and political history.

Koch’s efforts to connect the network’s push for rolling back government regulations to historic civil rights movements is part of a broad attempt to cast the organization as one deeply concerned about the plight of the poor. During his comments at the donor retreat, Koch repeatedly cited the effect of big government on the lower class.

The emphasis appears to be driven by a sense among network officials that they need to do more to win the public over to their cause. On Sunday, Koch cited the need to be “much more effective in articulating” the organization’s mission.

“If we cannot unite the majority of Americans behind the vision, then we’re done for,” he added. “So that, to me, has to be our number one objective. But to do so, we’ve got to do a much better job of understanding what matters most to people and then to demonstrate that a free society gives them the best opportunity of achieving that.”

He cited criminal justice reform as an issue that has resonated because it “strikes the same chord as past successful freedom movements.”

The network is now looking at other policies related to poverty, he said, such as “a failing educational system.”

“What we’ve been doing in the past is not sufficient,” Koch added. “We are going to have to raise our efforts to the next level.”