|Founded||1971, Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.|
|Key people||J. Richard Cohen, President
Morris Dees, Founder
|Industry||Civil rights law|
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an American non-profit legal advocacy organization, internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists and its tracking of organizations it calls hate groups.
The SPLC, based in Montgomery, Alabama, was founded in 1971 by Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. as a civil rights law firm. Later, civil rights leader Julian Bond became its president. In addition to free legal service to the victims of discrimination and hate crimes, the Center publishes a quarterly Intelligence Report that investigates extremism and hate crimes in the United States.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was organized by Dees and Levin in 1971 during a desegregation case (Smith v. Young Men's Christian Association), as a law firm to handle anti-discrimination cases in the United States. The organization's first president was Julian Bond, formerly of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Bond served as president until 1979 and remains on its board of directors. In 1979 the Center brought the first of its many cases against the Ku Klux Klan. In 1981 the Center began its "Klanwatch" (now "Hatewatch") project to monitor and track the activities of the KKK, which has been expanded to include seven other types of hate organizations.
In July 1983, Klan members firebombed the center's office, destroying the building and records. Federal investigators said "the intruders went to work quickly, dousing files, desks and carpets with a petroleum based liquid, perhaps gasoline mixed with motor oil or diesel fuel and concentrating on the four corners of the 6,000-square-foot (560 m2) building." In February 1985 Klan members and a Klan sympathizer pleaded guilty to federal and state charges related to the fire. At the trial, "Joe M. Garner and Roy T. Downs Jr., identified as klansmen, and Charles Bailey pleaded guilty to a two-count information charging them with conspiring to threaten, oppress and intimidate members of black organizations represented by the law center." Over 30 people have been jailed in connection with plots to kill Dees or blow up the center.
That same year, Dees became the primary assassination target of The Order, a revolutionary white supremacist group, for his work with the SPLC. Radio host Alan Berg was killed by the group outside his Colorado home; he was the number two on its list.
When Klansmen lynched a black teenager in Mobile Alabama, SPLC lawyers used an unprecedented legal strategy to hold the Klan accountable for the acts of its members. In 1987, the group won its case against the United Klans of America, producing a $7 million judgment for the mother of Michael Donald, the lynched victim. The verdict bankrupted the United Klans of America and resulted in its national headquarters being sold to help satisfy the judgment. In 1987 the Klan again targeted Dees and planned to bomb the SPLC. During the past 25 years, SPLC lawsuits have bankrupted or crippled 12 major hate groups whose members killed, injured or threatened innocent people.
In 1989 the Center unveiled its Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin. 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 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 Meztger lost his home and will not be publishing any more material, the full amount of the multi-million dollar reward was not recovered. In 1995 a group of four white males were indicted for plans to blow up the SPLC.
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." Several neo-Nazi groups held a rally in front of SPLC headquarters in early 2003.
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. Since filing the suit the SPLC has received nearly a dozen threats "promising the most dangerous threat" ever faced. A July 2007 letter allegedly came from Hal Turner, a white supremacist talk show host. During the November 2008 trial on the lawsuit, a former member of the IKA said that the Klan head told him to kill Dees.
The SPLC's initiatives include the website Tolerance.org. The website has been a past winner of a Webby Award which is a set of awards presented to the "world's best websites." The website houses multiple initiatives:
According to the SPLC "Teaching Tolerance provides educators with free educational materials that promote respect for differences and appreciation of diversity in the classroom and beyond."
"Teaching Tolerance" is aimed at two different age groups of students with separate materials for teachers and parents. One portion of the project targets elementary school children, providing informational material on the history of the civil rights movement. The center's material for children includes a publication entitled "A fresh look at multicultural 'American English'" that explores the cultural history of common words. A project website designed for elementary school children includes an interactive program that addresses political topics such as school mascots with Native American names, the Confederate flag, and popular music and entertainment. Users of the website are encouraged to consider how racial, gender, and sexual orientation insensitivity might be displayed in such cases.
A similar educational program aimed at teenagers in the middle and high school age groups includes a "Mix it Up" project urging readers to participate in various school activities that encourage interaction between different social groups. Other features of the teenager educational project include political activism tips and reports highlighting examples of student activism. A monthly SPLC publication for teens promotes a highlighted political movement, normally focusing on minority, feminist, and LGBT youth organizations. The program also provides publications to students such as "Ways to fight hate on campus" suggesting ideas for community activism and diversity education.
"Teaching Tolerance" also provides advice and materials for parents aimed at encouraging multiculturalism in the upbringing of their children. A guide published by the project urges parents to "examine the 'diversity profile' for your children's friends," move to "integrated and economically diverse neighborhoods," and discourage children from playing with toys or adopting heroes that "promote violence." The publication also advises parents on the use of culturally sensitive language such as promoting gender-neutral phrasings such as "Someone Special Day" instead of the traditional Mothers Day or Fathers Day and urges them to ensure "cultural diversity 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, in 2005, and A Time for Justice, America's Civil Rights Movement in 1995. Five others have been nominated.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has won many notable civil cases with large money awards for the plaintiffs. The SPLC has said it does not accept any portion of monetary judgments. In addition to providing free magazines and videos on race relations to more than 50,000 schools, Dees and the SPLC "have been credited with devising innovative legal ways to cripple hate groups, including seizing their assets."
The first SPLC case was filed by Dees and Levin against the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in Montgomery, Alabama who "continued to segregate children, going so far as to ban kids who swam at an integrated pool from city-wide meets." In 1969, the YMCA refused to allow two black children to its summer camp, and they sued on behalf of the children's parents. In the course of the lawsuit, Dees "uncovered a secret 1958 agreement between the city and the YMCA in which city officials gave the YMCA control of many city recreational activities." In 1971 SPLC assumed responsibility for the case. In 1972 the court ruled that Montgomery had given the YMCA control with a "municipal character," and "ordered the YMCA to stop its discriminatory, segregationist practices."
In 1979, over 100 members of the Invisible Empire Klan, armed with bats, ax handles and guns, clashed with a group of peaceful civil rights marchers in Decatur, Alabama. Two marchers were shot in the head and face. Others were beaten with clubs and sticks. The FBI did not find enough evidence of a conspiracy to charge the Klansmen involved. The SPLC filed a civil suit, Brown v. Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in 1980 against the Invisible Empire and numerous Klansmen. During court discovery procedures, SPLC uncovered evidence that convinced the FBI to reopen the case, and nine Klansmen were eventually convicted of criminal charges. In 1990, the civil suit was finally resolved through a unique settlement, requiring the Klansmen to pay damages, perform community service, and refrain from white supremacist activity. In a unique addition, the Klansmen were also required to attend a course on race relations and prejudice, taught by the leaders of the civil rights group they attacked back in 1979.
In 1981 the SPLC took the Klan to court to stop racial harassment and intimidation against Vietnamese fisherman. In May 1981 the courts sided with the Vietnamese fisherman and the SPLC, forcing the Klan to end harassment. Also in 1981 the SPLC won a case which "ordered an Alabama county to pay salaries to the staff of its first black probate judge, continuing a practice that, in violation of state law, had been in use for more than two decades."
Bearing guns and dressed in paramilitary uniforms, members of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (a.k.a. Confederate Knights of the Ku Klux Klan) terrorized a black prison guard, his family and others in 1982. In 1984, Bobby Person, the prison guard, became the lead plaintiff in an SPLC lawsuit, Person v. Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina against the Invisible Empire. During the litigation, Klansmen continued harassing and threatening the plaintiffs, and the court issued an order prohibiting any person from interfering with other persons inside the federal courthouse.
In January 1985, the Court issued a consent order that prohibited Glenn Miller, the group's Grand Dragon, and members of the group from training and operating a paramilitary organization; marching or parading in black neighborhoods; and harassing, intimidating, threatening or harming any black or white person who associates with black persons. The plaintiff's claims for damages were dismissed and the Consent Decree was made final in September 1985. After changing the group's name to the White Patriot Party, Miller resumed paramilitary operations and Klan business as usual. Less than a year later, Miller and others were found guilty of criminal contempt for violating the consent order. Miller was sentenced to 6 months in prison, six months suspended sentence and 3 years probation during which he could not associate with any members of the White Patriot Party or other racist groups. The contempt verdict was upheld by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 1988. Miller went underground, declared war on Jews and the federal government and was again arrested and served three years in federal prison on a weapons charge.
In 1987 the SPLC successfully brought a civil case, on behalf of the victim's family, against the United Klans of America (UKA) for the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald, a 19-year-old black man in Mobile, Alabama. Unable to come up 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 and used the money to purchase her first house.
On November 13, 1988 in Portland, Oregon, three white supremacist members of East Side White Pride and White Aryan Resistance beat to death Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian man who came to the United States to attend college. In October 1990 the SPLC won a civil case on behalf of the deceased's family against WAR's operator Tom Metzger and Tom's son, John Metzger for a total of $12.5 million. The Metzgers declared bankrupcty, and WAR went out of business. The cost of work for the trial was absorbed by Anti-Defamation League as well as the SPLC. Metzger still makes payments to Seraw's family.
In May 1991 Harold Mansfield Jr, a black war veteran in the United States Navy, was murdered by 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 winning 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 money being paid to Mansfield's heirs; the SPLC filed suit against Pierce for his role in the fraudulent scheme, and won an $85,000 judgment in 1995. The amount was upheld on appeal and the money was collected prior to Pierce's death in 2002. According to a former member of the Alliance, when SPLC sued Pierce the Alliance was worried it would be the end of the hate group.
The SPLC won a $37.8 million verdict for 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 in Idaho shot at Victoria Keenan and her son. Bullets struck their car several times then the car crashed and an Aryan Nations member 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.
In 2002 the SPLC and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore for authorizing a two ton display of the Ten Commandments on public property. Moore, late at night and without telling any other court justice, 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. After refusing to obey several court rulings Moore was eventually removed from the court, and the monument was removed as well.
On March 18, 2003, a group of illegal immigrants from El Salvador were traveling on foot through a Texas ranch owned by Joseph Sutton when they were accosted by a group of vigilantes known as Ranch Rescue, who had been recruited by Sutton to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border region nearby. The immigrants were captured and held at gunpoint by their assailants, during which one Salvadoran was struck on the back of the head with a handgun, and a rottweiler was allowed to attack him. The Salvadorans were threatened with death and otherwise terrorized before being released.
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 Casey James Nethercott and Torre John Foote, Ranch Rescue's leader. 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 Arizona property, which was Ranch Rescue's headquarters, was seized to pay the judgment. Nethercott is currently serving a five-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. SPLC staff worked closely with Texas prosecutors to obtain that conviction.
On April 20, 2007 a civil jury in Linden, Texas awarded $9 million in damages to Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled black man, who was beaten and dumped along a desolate road by four white men in September 2003. The lawsuit was brought on Johnson's behalf by the SPLC. Four white males took Johnson to a party where he was knocked unconscious then dropped on his head, referred to as a nigger, and left in a ditch bleeding. Due to the event, "Johnson, 46, who suffered serious, permanent brain injuries from the attack, will require care for the rest of his life." At a criminal trial the four men received sentences of 30 to 60 days in county jail. The jury hoped that the verdict would improve race relations in the community stemming from a United States Department of Education investigation and other controversial verdicts. During the trial one of the defendants, Cory Hicks, referred to Johnson as "it."
In November 2008, the SPLC's case against the Imperial Klans of America (IKA), the second largest Klan organization, in Meade County, Kentucky began. 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 had been 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. The large judgment against Ron Edwards, Imperial Wizard of the group, and Jarred Hensley, who participated in the attack, financially crippled the nation’s second largest Klan group, which may have to relinquish its 15-acre (61,000 m2) compound near Dawson Spring, KY to pay it. Both defendants are expected to have their wages garnished for perhaps 15 years. The two other defendants, Andrew Watkins and Joshua Cowles, previously agreed to confidential settlements and were dropped from the suit.
The SPLC's Intelligence Project monitors organizations and individuals whom it deems "hate groups" and "extremists" in the United States with their Intelligence Report. The report is published quarterly since 1981 and provides information regarding organizational efforts and tactics of hate groups. In addition to the Report, the SPLC publishes HateWatch Weekly that follows racism and extremism.
Professors of sociology Betty A. Dobratz, (Iowa State University) and Stephanie L. Shanks-Meile, (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), wrote about SPLC and several other “watchdog” groups: “What the ‘watchdog’ groups focus on is at least partially influenced by the fact that these organizations depend on public financial support, and the public is likely to contribute to groups that they perceive are struggling against some major threat to America. We relied on SPLC and ADL reports for general information, but we have noticed differences between ways 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.”
While acknowledging the possibility of some statistical bias by the SPLC, Rory McVeigh, the Chair of the University of Notre Dame Sociology Department, wrote:
Such measurement bias, if it exists, would be more likely to show up in claims concerning membership or in descriptions of the movement's goals, rather than in a listing of organizations. The SPLC's lists of U.S. racist organizations are by far the most comprehensive available. Its outstanding reputation is well established, and the SPLC has been an excellent source of information for social scientists who study racist organizations.
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" written by David Holthouse and Casey Sanchez took second place for Feature Reporting in the Magazine Division in 2007.. On March 20, 2009 in Washington, D.C., the Intelligence Project received a Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Immigration Law Foundation for its “outstanding work” covering the anti-immigration movement. Also, according to the Illinois Association for Cultural Diversity at Western Illinois University, the magazine is a reliable source for information about hate groups and hate crimes
On August 12, 2009, the SPLC issued a Special Report entitled "The Second Wave: The Return of the Militias" 
The SPLC says:" All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics. ... Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing. ... Listing here does not imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity."
The SPLC reported that a record number of hate groups were active in the United States in 2008: 926, up from 888 in 2007. These included 186 separate Ku Klux Klan (KKK) groups, 196 neo-Nazi, 111 white nationalist, 98 racist skinhead, 39 Christian Identity, 93 neo-Confederate, 113 black separatist, and 90 general hate groups subdivided into anti-gay, anti-immigrant, Holocaust denial, racist music, radical traditionalist Catholic groups, and others espousing a variety of hateful doctrines. These groups maintained 52 KKK, 89 neo-Nazi, 190 white nationalist, 25 racist skinhead, 37 Christian Identity, 25 neo-Confederate, 40 black separatist and 172 general hate websites. Only organizations known to be active in 2008 were counted, excluding those that appear to exist only on the Internet. In addition, SPLC reported there were 159 "patriot" groups active in the United States in 2008, up from 131 in 2007, with at least one such group in every state. They maintain 141 websites.
Some organizations described by the SPLC as hate groups object to this characterization. The Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC) argue that the SPLC's claim that the CofCC is tied to white supremacists is inaccurate.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is the principal group reporting on the neo-Confederate movement. A 2000 special report by the SPLC's Mark Potok in their magazine, Intelligence Report, describes a number of groups as neo-Confederate. The SPLC has also carried subsequent articles on the neo-Confederate movement. "Lincoln Reconstructed" published in 2003 in the Intelligence Report focuses on the resurgent demonization of Abraham Lincoln in the southern United States. The article quotes Father Alister Anderson, national chaplain of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as giving an invocation which recalled "the last real Christian civilization on Earth", and also denounced "hypocrites and bigots", who dismiss "the righteous cause for which our ancestors fought." In the SPLC article "Whitewashing the Confederacy", George Ewert claimed that Gods and Generals presented a false, pro-Confederate view of history. David Horowitz's Front Page Magazine responded, as part of what is known as the David Horowitz Freedom Center controversy. The David Horowitz Freedom Center itself was identified as a neo-Confederate group by the SPLC.
The Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC) has been identified by the SPLC as a neo-Confederate organization, and it was criticised for misleading its supporters in order to get donations. The SLRC was criticized because its founder, Kirk D. Lyons' pre-SLRC defended controversial far right figures such as Tom Metzger and members of Aryan Nations.
Starting in 1971, the SPLC set aside money for its endowment in future programs in order "to carry on the struggle for tolerance and justice — for as long as it is needed." The SPLC have utilized fundraising efforts to build up their own endowment as the group notes all activities including litigation are supported by fundraising efforts, and they do not accept any fees or share of legal judgments awarded to clients it represents in court. During 2008 fiscal year, the SPLC stated "we spent approximately 69% of our total expenses on program services. At the end of the fiscal year, our endowment – a special, board-designated fund to support our future work – stood at $156.2 million."The methods they use are somewhat unconventional and critics accuse them of leveraging fear to solicit donations as well as having "top people at the center [...] paid very high salaries". Charity ranking organizations such as the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance do not score the SPLC. According to Charity Navigator, SPLC's 2008 outlays fell into the following categories: program expenses of 68.0%, administrative expenses of 14.3%, and fundraising expenses of 17.6%. In 2008 the American Institute of Philanthropy's Charity Ratings Guide gave the SPLC an "F" rating for "excessive" reserves.
In 1994 the Montgomery Advertiser ran a series alleging the SPLC was financially mismanaged and employed misleading fundraising practices. In response 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 claimed the SPLC "the nation's richest civil rights organization", with $68 million in assets at the time. In 2000, Harper's Magazine published an article by Ken Silverstein critical of the SPLC noting the poor ratings from charity ranking organizations and that it spent as much money on fundraising as it did legal action. In 2007 Silverstein published a follow-up noting that he felt the imbalance was still present and the group had only been more successful in fundraising since and their endowment likewise had grown exponentially.