Karen and John Birch

My friend the always witty and brilliant Celia Rivenbark reached out to me to ask what did I think of all the “Karen” memes going around on Social Media. She is the only person besides my husband who has asked how I felt about having my name associated with the snarky and almost always demeaning memes.

What a week for asking me that question. I had already been wondering how many people were passing those memes around about me this week after I filed a police report about a motorist who struck me and my grandson’s stroller during a recent Black Lives Matter march. Not only did I file a report, but another witness to the event also made a report. Her name is Karen, too.

A lot of people made reports about the incidence because a lot of people witnessed it. I appreciate every single person who stepped forward to say something, especially those for whom speaking out is hard to do. If you are reading this, I thank you.

When the “Karen” memes started firs appearing on SM, I found them amusing, especially since I can’t deny that I am very much the person who will speak up when something is amiss. That doesn’t mean I am going to send my salad back because it has the wrong dressing on it like Sister Tater does. She was a waitress for many years so she doesn’t hesitate to make an order as difficult as possible for whomever is waiting on her. Add this. Don’t add that. No this isn’t right. Sister Tater and Uncle Bubba are both foodies and thus, particular.

But as I told Brother John, I don’t think anyone who has known me all my life would be shocked by who I have turned out to be. I am, after all, the very same Karen who at age 12 walked down to the phone booth in the trailer court and put in my quarter and called up the operator at Columbus College and asked to speak to a certain nun. A nun who happened to be teaching a nursing class my mother was taking. Once the nun was on the phone, I proceeded to tell her that I thought she ought to cut my mother some slack since my mom was doing the best she could at the time.

I wrote about that moment in After the Flag has been Folded (HarperCollins). But the year was 1968. There was no such thing as Social Media or iPhones. I was in a phone booth for goodness sake. I had used the big black phone book to look up the number to the college. Of course, I didn’t warn my mother in advance that I was going to call the nun. I was trying to take care of a problem. My mother had come home crying because she was so stressed out over the class, fearing the nun was going to fail her because she didn’t like her.

I know exactly what gave me the gumption to make that phone call and it wasn’t my name – it was the love I had for my mama. It is that same gumption that compelled me to reach out to the police this week after a motorist decided to use his vehicle as a tool to disperse a crowd so that he could move his car through a Black Lives Matter march, striking my grandson’s stroller and me in the process.

Still, as I told one fellow who I spoke with, I wished this week that my name wasn’t Karen. I hate having it associated with all those memes during a time when speaking up is critical. Someone, I don’t remember who, said I have Karen Pence to thank. Really? Does she talk? And besides isn’t her name “Mother”?

I bet if I were to FOIA the emails and texts of the local police department, someone has shared one of those demeaning memes about me already. You can bet the motorist and his friends have. In fact, I’ve already received threatening messages on Facebook from people who are either read about the case on Social Media, or is associated with the motorist, who has now been charged (Thank you Attorney Steiner).

But as I mentioned to the notoriously hilarious writer Rivenbark, I am not the first to have my name trashed by something I have no control over.

You know who else did?

John Birch. 

Yep. That John Birch.

You and I know the name John Birch because of the hate group, The John Birch Society. To be clear, the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to the JBS as a conspiracy theorist organization, not an outright hate group. Others have labeled it  “the intellectual seed bank of the right.” (Pause for a moment and reflect upon that). 

The group was founded in 1958 in response to what one man worried was a growing communist influence in America. That man, however, was not John Birch.

General Chennault, commander of the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force, pins a medal on the chest of Lt. John Birch.

That man was Robert Welch. It really should be called the R. Welch Society, but you know, welch is such a sorry name for most any organization, since it can quite literally mean “fail to honor” or “betray”. Truly an unsuitable name for an organization comprised of a misguided group of people who think they are doing anything but betraying American values, even though in reality they are.

By 1965, JBS had 95,000 members. To put it in a more significant historical perspective, without the John Birch Society’s rise on the national forefront, we likely would never have gone to war in Vietnam, and well, most of you already know how that impacted my life, leading me to make that phone call to the dismayed nun.

John Birch himself would have had nothing to do with the John Birch Society, so claimed General Jimmy Doolittle, of the famed Doolittle Raid. “I feel sure he would not have approved,” Doolittle said. They two had met in China shortly after the raid on Tokyo. At the time Doolittle was not yet a general and Birch was not yet a solider.

He was a missionary in China. Having grown up a child of missionaries, Birch studied at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, a connection that would serve him admirably during his time as a missionary and later a military intelligence officer during World War II.

That’s not to say that John Birch wasn’t strident about things; he was a typical 1930s fundamentalist Baptist when it came to matters of faith. In 1939, while a student at Mercer, he and 12 other ministerial students charged four professors with hearsay. In his disposition regarding one of the professors, Birch described the reported it this way:

Dr. Freeman: Well, I’ll tell you what l mean when I speak of my soul’s being saved. When I say that my soul is saved I mean that my thinking is saved from error, that my will is saved from wrong willing and acting, that my emotion is saved from improper feeling.

Another Student: Dr. Freeman, we are save from sin, aren’t we? To- er- what?

Dr. Freeman: To Christlike character! How about that, Mr. Birch?

Birch: That’s one of the things.

Dr. Freeman: That’s the only thing!

Birch: No, sir!

Birch noted that the two carried on the discussion after class but reached no compromise, and thus, he was joining with the other students making charges of hearsay against those who dared make them think. Not surprisingly, the charges were dropped against the professors after a quick hearing. Birch later came to believe that his youthful zeal for his faith had been exploited by a group of local Baptists. Imagine. It would not be the last time others took advantage of Birch’s desire to serve God and man.

Birch was aware that he had inherent biases and prejudices. He worked to overcome them, as any person of faith should strive to do. Birch went to China in 1940 as a missionary with the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship. He was 22. He quickly mastered the Chinese language, which would make him invaluable to military intelligence later on.

Birch’s deep love for the Chinese people he sought to “win over to Jesus Christ” endeared him to them. He dressed as they dressed, ate the foods they ate, and could converse with them in their language. It was all of this that made Birch so desirable to General C. Chennault, who recruited him to work as a military intelligence officer with the promise that Birch could preach to whomever he liked every Sunday. (Talk about exploiting a man’s love for God).

Even the most casual look into the life of John Birch provides insight into the various ways in which the U.S. military is built not on the foundations of freedom but on the tenets of a patriarchal fundamentalist religion. The ties between the military and the fundamentalist religious communities of this nation are intertwined in the most ungodly of ways and have been throughout the history of this nation. Yet, the notion of American exceptionalism was abhorrent to Birch, who valued the humanity of the people he served. Shortly before his death, 10 days after the end of World War II, Birch wrote the following in a letter home:  “God, to enjoy a book, to lie on a shaded grassy bank and watch the clouds sail across the sky.” 




John Birch was 27 years old when he was killed by rogue Chinese soldiers.

Communists, the John Birch Society is quick to point out.

Photo by Gordon Parks

It was John’s mother who granted Welch the right to use the name of her slain son. She likely had no clue what the John Birch Society would morph into, then or now. Ethel Birch came to believe that the military covered up the manner in which her son died. In truth, they did. And she felt that they didn’t honor him properly. They didn’t. So she was too eager to grasp hold of anything that would help honor her son’s sacrifices.

Ethel Birch had no clue that Welch was establishing an organization that would deny Blacks their civil rights in 1965:

“It opposed civil rights legislation in the 1960s, saying the African-American freedom movement was being manipulated from Moscow with the goal of creating a ‘Soviet Negro Republic’ in the Southern United States. The society was a close ally of Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace and reportedly had 100 chapters in and around Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, as well as chapters across the rest of the state.”  

And the children of immigrants their rights today:

This is what the 21st-century John Birch Society looks like. Gone is the organization’s past obsession with ending the supposed communist plot to achieve mind-control through water fluoridation. What remains is a hodgepodge of isolationist, religious and right-wing goals that vary from concrete to abstract, from legitimate to conspiracy minded—goals that don’t look so different from the ideology coming out of the White House. It wants to pull the United States out of NAFTA (which it sees as the slippery slope that will lead us to a single-government North American Union), return America to what they call its Christian foundations, defund the UN, abolish the departments of education and energy, and slash the federal government drastically.


I am sure that if Ethel Birch had known that her son’s name would be co-opted by racists like the Koch Brothers who think nothing of co-opting the Bible for their own selfish pursuits, she never would have granted Mr. Welch permission to defame her son as the John Birch Society continues to do today.

Ethel Birch was simply a Gold Star mother who trusted that the nation who called her son into service would honor his sacrifice and hers. A nation that promised to never forget, but too often does just that.

The name John Birch has come to represent one of the most reprehensible groups of oppression of American freedoms and values in this nation’s history. A group that is currently on the rise, along with the very kind of authoritarian patriarchal government John Birch, the soldier and the missionary, fought against.

So whenever I get to feeling put out about all the demeaning Karen memes, I just think of John Birch, the kid who died serving a country who has done nothing but dishonor his good name ever since.

Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star daughter and the author of After the Flag has been Folded, and many other books. Check one out.



Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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