Southern Poverty Law Center
Joseph J. Levin, Jr.
Public-interest law firm|
Civil rights advocacy organization
|J. Richard Cohen, President|
|$40,418,368 (2012 FY)|
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an American nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation. It is noted for its legal victories against white supremacist groups, its classification of hate groups and other extremist organizations, its legal representation for victims of hate groups, and its educational programs that promote tolerance. The SPLC's classification and listing of hate groups -- organizations that in its opinion "attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics" -- has been the source of some controversy.
In 1971, Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. founded the SPLC as a civil rights law firm based in Montgomery, Alabama. Civil rights leader Julian Bond joined Dees and Levin and served as president of the board between 1971 and 1979.
The SPLC originally advocated for a broad range of progressive civil rights issues. In 1979 it began to fight the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups with an innovative litigating strategy involving filing civil suits for monetary damages on behalf of the victims of hate group harassment, threats, and violence. Given the decline in such groups over the years, the SPLC has become involved in other civil rights causes, including cases concerned with institutional racial segregation and discrimination, discrimination based on sexual orientation, the mistreatment of illegal immigrants, and the separation of church and state. Along with civil rights organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the SPLC has provided information about hate groups to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The SPLC has been criticized for its fundraising tactics and some listings of individuals and groups.
The SPLC does not accept government funds, nor does it charge its clients legal fees or share in their court-awarded judgments. Most of its funds come from direct mail campaigns which have helped it to build substantial monetary reserves.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. in 1971 as a law firm originally focused on issues such as fighting poverty, discrimination and the death penalty in the United States. The SPLC's first president was Julian Bond, who served as president until 1979 and remained on its board of directors until his death on August 15, 2015. In 1979, Dees decided to begin monitoring far-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, sharing their observations with law enforcement agencies (which, after the COINTELPRO program was revealed, were forbidden from monitoring such groups without evidence of criminal activity) and suing them for monetary damages on behalf of their victims. In 1981, the Center began its Klanwatch project to monitor the activities of the KKK. That project, now called Hatewatch, has been expanded to include seven other types of hate organizations.
In July 1983, the center's office was firebombed, destroying the building and records. In February 1985 Klan members and a Klan sympathizer pleaded guilty to federal and state charges related to the fire. At the trial, Klansmen Joe M. Garner and Roy T. Downs Jr. along with Charles Bailey pleaded guilty to conspiring to intimidate, oppress and threaten members of black organizations represented by SPLC. According to Dees, more than 30 people have been jailed in connection with plots to kill him or blow up the center.
In 1987, SPLC won a case against the United Klans of America for the lynching of Michael Donald, a black teenager in Mobile, Alabama. The SPLC used an unprecedented legal strategy of holding an organization responsible for the crimes of individual members to help produce a $7 million judgment for the victim's mother. The verdict forced United Klans of America into bankruptcy. Its national headquarters was sold for approximately $52,000 to help satisfy the judgment. In 1987, five members of a Klan offshoot, the White Patriot Party, were indicted for stealing military weaponry and plotting to kill Dees.
In 1989, the Center unveiled its Civil Rights Memorial, which was designed by Maya Lin. In October 1990, the SPLC won $12.5 million in damages against Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance when a Portland, Oregon, jury held the neo-Nazi group liable in the beating death of an Ethiopian immigrant. While Metzger lost his home and ability to publish material, only a small fraction of the multimillion-dollar damages were recoverable. The Center's "Teaching Tolerance" project was initiated in 1991, and its "Klanwatch" program has gradually expanded to include other anti-hate monitoring projects and a list of reported hate groups in the United States. In 1995, four white men were indicted for planning to blow up the SPLC.
In 1994 the Montgomery Advertiser published an eight part critical report on the SPLC, saying that it exaggerated the threat posed by the Klan and similar groups to raise money, discriminated against black employees and used misleading fundraising tactics. The SPLC dismissed the series as a 'hatchet job'.
In May 1998, three white supremacists were arrested for allegedly planning a nationwide campaign of assassinations and bombings targeting "Morris Dees, an undisclosed federal judge in Illinois, a black radio-show host in Missouri, Dees's Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and the Anti-Defamation League in New York." In 1999 the SPLC broke ground on their new headquarters building. It was completed in 2001.
The SPLC has been criticized for using hyperbole and overstating the prevalence of hate groups to raise large amounts of money. In a 2000 Harper's Magazine article, Ken Silverstein said that Dees has kept the SPLC focused on fighting anti-minority groups like the KKK, whose membership has declined to just 2,000, instead of on issues like homelessness, mostly because the former issue makes for more lucrative fundraising. The article claimed the SPLC "spends twice as much on fund-raising -- $5.76 million last year -- as it does on legal services for victims of civil rights abuses." Harper's pointed out that more than 95% of hate crimes are committed by lone wolves without any connection to militia groups the SPLC speaks of.
In July 2007, the SPLC filed suit against the Imperial Klans of America (IKA) in Meade County, where in July 2006 five Klansmen allegedly beat Jordan Gruver, a 16-year-old boy of Panamanian descent, at a Kentucky county fair. After filing the suit, the SPLC received nearly a dozen threats. During the November 2008 civil trial, a former member of the IKA said that the Klan head told him to kill Dees.
In 2008, the SPLC and Dees were featured on National Geographic's Inside American Terror exploring their litigation against several branches of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has won multiple civil cases resulting in monetary awards for the plaintiffs. The SPLC has said it does not accept any portion of monetary judgments. Dees and the SPLC "have been credited with devising innovative legal ways to cripple hate groups, including seizing their assets." However, this has led to criticism from some civil libertarians, who contend that the SPLC's tactics chill free speech and set legal precedents that could be applied against activist groups which are not hate groups. The SPLC has also entered suits related to mass incarceration and children's rights in prison and criminal justice issues.
YMCA, Montgomery, Alabama
In 1969, prior to founding the SPLC, Dees sued the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in Montgomery, Alabama at the request of civil rights activist Mary Louise Smith, whose son Vincent and nephew Edward the YMCA had refused to allow to attend its summer camp. The YMCA, being a private organization, was presumptively not bound by the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would have forbidden them to discriminate against children on the basis of race. However, Dees discovered that, in order to avoid desegregating its recreational facilities, the city of Montgomery had instead signed a secret agreement with the YMCA to operate them as private facilities but on the city's behalf. This led the trial court to rule that the YMCA had a "municipal charter" and was therefore bound by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution to desegregate its facilities. According to historian Timothy Minchin, Dees was "emboldened by this victory" when he founded the SPLC in 1971. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit(α) later affirmed the trial judge's finding, reversing only his order that the YMCA use affirmative action to racially integrate its board of directors.
In 1981, the SPLC took Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam's Klan-associated militia, the Texas Emergency Reserve (TER), to court to stop racial harassment and intimidation of Vietnamese shrimpers in and around Galveston Bay. The Klan's actions against approximately 100 Vietnamese shrimpers in the area included a cross burning, sniper fire aimed at them, and arsonists burning their boats. In May 1981 U.S. District Court judge Gabrielle McDonald issued a preliminary injunction against the Klan, requiring them to cease intimidating, threatening, or harassing the Vietnamese. McDonald eventually found the TER and Beam guilty of tortious interference, violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and of various civil rights statutes and thus permanently enjoined them against violence, threatening behavior, and other harassment of the Vietnamese shrimpers. The SPLC also uncovered an obscure Texas law "that forbade private armies in that state." McDonald found that Beam's organization violated it and hence ordered the TER to close its military training camp.
White Patriot Party
In 1982 armed members of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Bobby Person, a black prison guard, and members of his family. They harassed and threatened others, including a white woman who had befriended blacks. In 1984 Person became the lead plaintiff in Person v. Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a lawsuit brought by the SPLC in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The harassment and threats continued during litigation and the court issued an order prohibiting any person from interfering with others inside the courthouse. In January 1985, the court issued a consent order that prohibited the group's "Grand Dragon", Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., and his followers from operating a paramilitary organization, holding parades in black neighborhoods, and from harassing, threatening or harming any black person or white persons who associated with black persons. Subsequently, the court dismissed the plaintiff's claim for damages.
Within a year the court found Miller and his followers, now calling themselves the White Patriot Party, in criminal contempt for violating the consent order. Miller was sentenced to six months in prison followed by a three-year probationary period, during which he was banned from associating with members of any racist group such as the White Patriot Party. Miller refused to obey the terms of his probation. He made underground "declarations of war" against Jews and the federal government before being arrested again. Found guilty of weapons violations, he went to federal prison for three years.
United Klans of America
In 1987, the SPLC successfully brought a civil case against the United Klans of America (UKA) for the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama by two of the UKA's members. Unable to come up with the $7 million awarded by the jury, the UKA was forced to turn over its national headquarters to Donald's mother, who then sold it for $51,875 and used the money to purchase her first house.
White Aryan Resistance
On November 13, 1988, in Portland, Oregon, three white supremacist members of East Side White Pride and White Aryan Resistance (WAR) beat Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian man who came to the United States to attend college, to death. In October 1990, the SPLC won a civil case on behalf of Seraw's family against WAR's operator Tom Metzger and his son, John, for a total of $12.5 million. The Metzgers declared bankruptcy, and WAR went out of business. The cost of work for the trial was absorbed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as well as the SPLC. As of August 2007, Metzger still makes payments to Seraw's family.
Church of the Creator
In May 1991, Harold Mansfield Jr, a black war veteran in the United States Navy, was murdered by George Loeb, a member of the neo-Nazi "Church of the Creator" (now called the Creativity Movement). SPLC represented the victim's family in a civil case and won a judgement of $1 million from the church in March 1994. The church transferred ownership to William Pierce, head of the National Alliance, to avoid paying money to Mansfield's heirs. The SPLC filed suit against Pierce for his role in the fraudulent scheme and won an $85,000 judgment against him in 1995. The amount was upheld on appeal and the money was collected prior to Pierce's death in 2002.
Christian Knights of the KKK
The SPLC won a $37.8 million verdict on behalf of Macedonia Baptist Church, a 100-year-old black church in Manning, South Carolina, against two Ku Klux Klan chapters and five Klansmen (Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Invisible Empire, Inc.) in July 1998. The money was awarded stemming from arson convictions in which the Klan burned down the historic black church in 1995. Morris Dees told the press, "If we put the Christian Knights out of business, what's that worth? We don't look at what we can collect. It's what the jury thinks this egregious conduct is worth that matters, along with the message it sends." According to The Washington Post the amount is the "largest-ever civil award for damages in a hate crime case."
In September 2000, the SPLC won a $6.3 million judgment against the Aryan Nations from an Idaho jury who awarded punitive and compensatory damages to a woman and her son who were attacked by Aryan Nations guards. The lawsuit stemmed from the July 1998 attack when security guards at the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake, in northern Idaho shot at Victoria Keenan and her son. Bullets struck their car several times, causing the car to crash. An Aryan Nations member then held the Keenans at gunpoint. As a result of the judgement, Richard Butler turned over the 20-acre (81,000 m2) compound to the Keenans, who then sold the property to a philanthropist, who subsequently donated it to North Idaho College, which designated the land as a "peace park". Because of the lawsuit, members of the AN drew up a plan to kill Dees, which was disrupted by the FBI.
Ten Commandments monument
In 2002, the SPLC and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore for placing a two-ton display of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. Moore, who had final authority over what decorations were to be placed in the Alabama State Judicial Building's Rotunda, had installed a 5,280 pound (2400 kg) granite block, three feet wide by three feet deep by four feet tall, of the Ten Commandments late at night without the knowledge of any other court justice. After defying several court rulings, Moore was eventually removed from the court, and the monument was removed as well.
On March 18, 2003, two illegal immigrants from El Salvador, Edwin Alfredo Mancía Gonzáles and Fátima del Socorro Leiva Medina, were trespassing through a Texas ranch owned by Joseph Sutton. They were accosted by vigilantes known as Ranch Rescue who were recruited by Sutton to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border region nearby. According to the SPLC, Gonzáles and Medina were held at gunpoint, and Gonzáles was struck on the back of the head with a handgun, and a Rottweiler dog was allowed to attack him. The SPLC said Gonzáles and Medina were threatened with death and otherwise terrorized before being released. However, the Salvadorans stated the ranchers gave them water, cookies and a blanket before letting them go after about an hour. Ranch Rescuer Casey James Nethercott denied hitting either of the trespassers with a gun, and no one was convicted of pistol-whipping.
In 2003, SPLC, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and local attorneys filed a civil suit, Leiva v. Ranch Rescue, in Jim Hogg County, Texas, against Ranch Rescue and several of its associates, seeking damages for assault and illegal detention. In April 2005, SPLC obtained judgments totaling $1 million against Nethercott and Ranch Rescue's leader, Torre John Foote. Those awards came six months after a $350,000 judgment in the same case and coincided with a $100,000 out-of-court settlement with Sutton. Nethercott’s 70-acre (280,000 m2) Arizona property, which was Ranch Rescue's headquarters, was seized to pay the judgment. Nethercott, previously convicted of assault in California, was sentenced to five years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm. SPLC staff worked closely with Texas prosecutors to obtain that conviction.
Billy Ray Johnson
The SPLC brought a civil suit on behalf of Billy Ray Johnson, a black, mentally disabled man, who was severely beaten by four white males and left bleeding in a ditch, suffering permanent injuries. Johnson was awarded $9 million in damages by a civil jury in Linden, Texas. At a criminal trial the four men received sentences of 30 to 60 days in county jail.
Imperial Klans of America
In November 2008, the SPLC's case against the Imperial Klans of America (IKA), the nation's second largest Klan organization, began in Meade County, Kentucky. The SPLC filed suit in July 2007 on behalf of Jordan Gruver and his mother against the IKA in Kentucky, where, in July 2006, five Klansmen savagely beat Gruver at a Kentucky county fair. According to the lawsuit, five Klan members went to the Meade County Fairgrounds in Brandenburg, Kentucky, "to hand out business cards and flyers advertising a 'white-only' IKA function." Two members of the Klan started calling the 16-year-old boy of Panamanian descent a "spic". Subsequently the boy, (5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m) and weighing 150 pounds (68 kg)) was beaten and kicked by the Klansmen (one of whom was 6 feet 5 inches (1.96 m) and 300 pounds (140 kg)). As a result, the victim received "two cracked ribs, a broken left forearm, multiple cuts and bruises and jaw injuries requiring extensive dental repair."
In a related criminal case in February 2007, Jarred Hensley and Andrew Watkins were sentenced to three years in prison for beating Gruver. On November 14, 2008, an all-white jury of seven men and seven women awarded $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages to the plaintiff against Ron Edwards, Imperial Wizard of the group, and Jarred Hensley, who participated in the attack. The two other defendants, Andrew Watkins and Joshua Cowles, previously agreed to confidential settlements and were dropped from the suit.
Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility
Together with the ACLU National Prison Project, the SPLC filed a class-action suit in November 2010 against the owner/operators of the private Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Leake County, Mississippi, and oversight state agencies. This was the largest youth facility in the nation. They charged that conditions, including understaffing and neglect of medical care, produced numerous and repeated abuses of youthful prisoners, and high rates of violence and injury; one prisoner suffered permanent brain-damage. A federal civil rights investigation was also undertaken by the United States Department of Justice, and the issues received national coverage. Mississippi ended its contract with Geo Group in 2012, which settled the suit. In addition, under the court decree, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has moved youthful offenders from Walnut Grove to other facilities that meet juvenile justice standards. In 2012 it opened a new youthful offender unit at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County. As a landmark element of the settlement, the state is prohibited by the court from subjecting any youthful offenders to solitary confinement. Under the settlement decree, a court monitor is conducting regular reviews of conditions at Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, now reserved for adult prisoners.
The SPLC's initiatives include the website Tolerance.org, past winner of the international Webby Award. The site provides daily news on tolerance issues, educational games for children, guidebooks for activists, and resources for parents and teachers.
The site's Teaching Tolerance initiative is aimed at two different age groups of students with separate materials for teachers and parents. One portion of the project is for elementary school children, providing material on the history of the civil rights movement. The center's material includes a publication entitled "A fresh look at multicultural 'American English'" which explores the cultural history of common words. A project website includes an interactive program addressing such topics as Native American school mascots, displays of the Confederate flag, and the themes of popular music and entertainment, encouraging pupils to consider racial, gender, and sexual orientation sensitivities.
A similar program aimed at middle and high school pupils includes a "Mix it Up" project urging readers to participate in school activities involving interaction between different social groups. Other features of this project includes political activism tips and reports highlighting student activism. The SPLC puts out a monthly publication typically focusing on a minority, feminist, or LGBT youth organization. Publications such as "10 Ways to Fight Hate on Campus" suggest ideas for community activism and diversity education.
Teaching Tolerance also provides advice to parents, encouraging multiculturalism in the upbringing of their children. A guide urges parents to "examine the 'diversity profile' of your children's friends," to move to "integrated and economically diverse neighborhoods," and to discourage children from playing with toys or adopting heroes that "promote violence." The publication also advises parents to use culturally sensitive language (such as the gender-neutral phrasing "Someone Special Day" instead of the traditional Mothers Day and Fathers Day) and to make sure that "cultural diversity (is) reflected in your home's artwork, music and literature."
The SPLC also produces documentary films. Two have won Academy Awards for documentary short subject: Mighty Times: The Children's March (2005), and A Time for Justice (1995). Another film was Wall of Tolerance, starring Jennifer Welker. Five others have been nominated for awards.
Law enforcement training
Tracking of hate groups and extremists
Hate group listings
The SPLC maintains a list of hate groups defined as groups that "...have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics." It says that hate group activities may include speeches, marches, rallies, meetings, publishing, leafleting, and criminal acts such as violence. It says not all groups so listed by the SPLC engage in criminal activity. The FBI has partnered with the SPLC and many other local and national organizations "to establish rapport, share information, address concerns, and cooperate in solving problems".
Since 1981, the SPLC's Intelligence Project has published a quarterly Intelligence Report that monitors what the SPLC considers radical right hate groups and extremists in the United States. The Intelligence Report provides information regarding organizational efforts and tactics of these groups, and has been cited by scholars as reliable and as the most comprehensive source on U.S. right-wing extremism and hate groups. The SPLC also publishes HateWatch Weekly, a newsletter that follows racism and extremism, and the Hatewatch blog, whose subtitle is "Keeping an Eye on the Radical Right".
Two articles published in Intelligence Report have won "Green Eyeshade Excellence in Journalism" awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. "Communing with the Council", written by Heidi Beirich and Bob Moser, took third place for Investigative Journalism in the Magazine Division in 2004, and "Southern Gothic", by David Holthouse and Casey Sanchez, took second place for Feature Reporting in the Magazine Division in 2007. On March 20, 2009, the Intelligence Project received a Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Immigration Law Foundation for its "outstanding work" covering the anti-immigration movement.
Year in Hate and Extremism
Since 2001, the SPLC has released an annual issue of the Intelligence Project called Year in Hate later renamed Year in Hate and Extremism, in which they present statistics on the numbers of hate groups in America. The current format of the report covers racial hate groups, nativist hate groups, and other right-wing extremist groups such as groups within the Patriot Movement.
In their study of the white separatist movement in the United States, sociologists Betty A. Dobratz and Stephanie L. Shanks-Meile referred to the SPLC's Klanwatch Intelligence Reports in saying "we relied on the SPLC and ADL for general information, but we have noted differences between the way events have been reported and what we saw at rallies. For instance, events were sometimes portrayed in Klanwatch Intelligence Reports as more militant and dangerous with higher turnouts than we observed." Rory McVeigh, the chair of the University of Notre Dame Sociology Department, wrote that "its outstanding reputation is well established, and the SPLC has been an excellent source of information for social scientists who study racist organizations."
Controversy over hate group and extremist listings
The SPLC's identifications and listings of hate groups have been the subject of controversy, with critics, including journalist Ken Silverstein and analyst of political fringe movements Laird Wilcox arguing that the SPLC has taken an incautious approach to assigning the label. In the wake of an August 2012 shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council in which a guard was wounded, some columnists criticized the SPLC's listing of the Family Research Council as an anti-gay hate group while others defended the categorization. The SPLC defended its listing of anti-gay hate groups, stating that groups were selected not because of their stances on political issues such as gay marriage, but rather on their "propagation of known falsehoods about LGBT people ... that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities". In 2010, a group of Republican politicians and conservative organizations criticized the SPLC in full-page advertisements in two Washington, D.C., newspapers for what they described as "character assassination" for having listed the Family Research Council as a hate group.
In October 2014, the SPLC added Ben Carson to its extremist watch list, citing his association with groups it considers extreme, and his alleged "linking of gays with pedophiles". In February 2015, the SPLC concluded the Carson profile did not meet SPLC standards, removed his listing and apologized to him.
In October 2016, the SPLC published a list of "anti-Muslim extremists", including British activist Maajid Nawaz and ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, attracting controversy. Nawaz who identifies as a "liberal, reform Muslim", denounced the listing as a "smear", saying that the SPLC listing had made him a target of jihadists. The SPLC responded “Our point is not to make these people targets for violence" “The point is to tamp down the really baseless targeting.”
The SPLC's activities including litigation are supported by fundraising efforts, and it does not accept any fees or share in legal judgments awarded to clients it represents in court. Starting in 1974, the SPLC set aside money for its endowment stating that it was "convinced that the day [would] come when nonprofit groups [would] no longer be able to rely on support through mail because of posting and printing costs." The SPLC has received criticism for perceived disproportionate endowment reserves and misleading fundraising practices. In 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser ran a series reporting that the SPLC was financially mismanaged and employed misleading fundraising practices. In response, SPLC co-founder Joe Levin stated: "The Advertiser's lack of interest in the center's programs and its obsessive interest in the center's financial affairs and Mr. Dees' personal life makes it obvious to me that the Advertiser simply wants to smear the center and Mr. Dees." The series was a finalist for but did not win a 1995 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism. In 1996, USA Today called the SPLC "the nation's richest civil rights organization", with $68 million in assets at the time. In the past, Alexander Cockburn writing in The Nation, Ken Silverstein writing in Harper's Magazine and fringe movements scholar Laird Wilcox have been sharply critical of the SPLC's fundraising appeals and finances. Charity Navigator rates the SPLC an 83.5 out of 100 on financial health matters and 97 out of 100 on accountability and transparency of its operations. The SPLC stated that during 2014 it spent about 68% of total expenses on program services, and that at the end of 2014 the endowment stood at approximately $303 million.
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