Southern Poverty Law Center: Self-Appointed Arbiter of Hatred and Hate Speech

“Morris and I… shared the overriding purpose of making a pile of money. We were not particular about how we did it. We just wanted to be independently rich.”  — Millard Fuller, speaking to Harper’s of his early business partnership with Morris Dees

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) pops up again and again in the news as a champion of civil rights, decrying white supremacists and accusing various people and groups of being “haters”. Of course, the SPLC’s judgment seems rather biased itself, so I got to wondering how they became the recognized authority on bigotry and “hate”.

Let’s be clear, “poverty” has little-to-nothing to do with the center’s activities. Its supposed focus is on fighting for civil rights and “tolerance” and against “hate groups” and racism. But, that’s just a means to an end. What it really is is an extremely well-funded Leftist attack machine,… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Morris Dees

Back in the 1960s, successful businessman and lawyer Morris Dees defended Ku Klux Klansmen — who, granted, deserve competent counsel under the law — and raised money for the likes of George Wallace and George McGovern. But, following a victory in a desegregation case against the YMCA, Dees was reportedly “emboldened” to take up the fight against racial injustice in America. Cynics might say he saw a “golden opportunity”. Dees then sold his book publishing venture — his partner, Fuller, having already sold him his shares — and founded (with Joseph J. Levin Jr.) the Southern Poverty Law Center as a civil rights law firm in Montgomery, AL, in 1971. As far as I can tell, Dees remains the center’s chief trial attorney.

“Dees was one of the principal architects of an innovative strategy that entailed using civil lawsuits in order to secure a court judgment for monetary damages against an organization for a wrongful act and then using the courts to seize its assets (money, land, buildings, other property) to pay the judgment.” (Wikipedia entry on Dees)

They were quite successful, with notable judgments including those against United Klans of America (1981, $7 million), the White Aryan Resistance (1991, $12 million), and the Aryan Nations (2001, $6.5 million). “Dees’s most famous cases have involved landmark damage awards that have driven several prominent neo-Nazi groups into bankruptcy, effectively causing them to disband and re-organize under different names and different leaders.”

Now, I have no problem with bankrupting white supremacist groups, as long as it’s done legally and ethically. (I don’t know enough about the cases to comment on that aspect.) But, Dees and the SPLC have broadened their reach into defending/promoting the LGBT agenda, as well as taking quite liberal stances on illegal immigrants and “the unconstitutional mixing of church and state.” They have become “social activists” who smear and demonize those who are not ideologically in agreement with them. This means that conservative Christians and others of a socio-politically conservative bent often find themselves in the SPLC’s crosshairs.

Back in the early 1980s, the SPLC began publishing its quarterly Intelligence Report, which provides information on the “organizational efforts and tactics” of those the center considers “radical right hate groups and extremists” in the U.S. They also produce a HateWatch Weekly newsletter with associated blog, as well as the annual Year in Hate edition of the Intelligence Report. Apparently, some scholars (though I don’t have any names to give you) have cited the SPLC’s publications as “a reliable and comprehensive source”, and even the F.B.I. started using them. Indeed, some of the people and groups on the “hate list” are genuinely deplorable, radical, bigots and racists.

“[O]ur aim in life is to destroy these groups, to completely destroy them.”  — Mark Potok, SPLC senior fellow

But, over the years (particularly since an organizational shake-up in 1986) their lists have expanded to include groups like the American Family Association (AFA), the Traditional Values Coalition, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), and the Family Research Council (FRC). These groups hold to traditional, conservative values and disapprove of things like homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage, making them guilty of a hate crime, according to the SPLC and those likeminded. While disagreeing with much of the FRC’s position, even noted liberal columnist Dana Milbank has called it “absurd to put the [FRC], as the law center does, in the same category as Aryan Nations, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Stormfront and the Westboro Baptist Church.” Yet, it was the FRC’s inclusion on the SPLC’s anti-gay hate group list that led domestic terrorist Floyd Corkins II to carry out a shooting attack on the FRC’s D.C. headquarters.

As Capital Research Center’s Matthew Vadum noted in Frontpagemag,

“SPLC is selective in singling out anti-gay “hate” groups. The Center ignores many Muslim organizations that are violently opposed to homosexuality. Instead the group attacks people like David Horowitz, Pamela Geller, and Robert Spencer who worry about the threat that radical Islamists pose to America, accusing them of anti-Muslim bigotry for daring to speak out.”

Vadum quotes Mark Potok as saying, “[W]e have strongly criticized all those who endorse such violence, whether on the political left or the political right.” Yet, they “habitually” overlook labor violence. Vadum also points out that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), a high-ranking Klansman, “got a free pass from the SPLC.”

Townhall.com’s Star Parker points out that the SPLC’s “Hate Map” includes “101 anti-Muslim hate groups, but somehow not a single anti-Christian hate group is identified. Actually, Christian groups, in their map, turn out to be the haters.”

This is all in line with what Personal Liberty‘s Sam Rolley observed back in 2013:

“[A] visit to the organization’s website to conduct a few searches of published material offers a cursory view: White, conservative, small government, Constitutionalist, Christian and fearful of Federal authority are all present. The organization does include a handful of write-ups and examinations of black separatist groups and even extremist Muslims (though most of the Muslim-related stories are about discrimination against Muslims by the greater American public); but those topics are approached with nowhere near the bravado of stories about Christian groups and small-government advocates.

For conservatives, the problem is that SPLC is accepted widely as an authority on discrimination, hate and extremist dangers by all manner of mainstream media organizations and is quoted widely in stories covering these topics. Meanwhile, SPLC routinely lists conservative politicians and benign religious organizations whose only real goals are to proselytize and influence public opinion in a way that furthers the Christian religious agenda alongside groups with dangerous and inflammatory radical histories like the Aryan Brotherhood, Ku Klux Klan (which, by all accounts is pretty powerless in modern America) and the joke that is Westboro Baptist Church.

By allowing political motivation to trump its stated mission of seeking justice and equality for society’s most vulnerable, SPLC has become no better than the most hateful of hate groups it has historically rallied against in the eyes of people who don’t adhere to leftist ideology.”

Townhall.com’s Ken Blackwell noted,

“While there are no clearly stated criteria for groups being on this “hate” list, the SPLC’s specialty is the targeting and slandering of conservatives and conservative groups. As Laird Wilcox, an expert on extremist groups, has pointed out, “What they [the SPLC] do is a kind of bullying and stalking. They pick people who are vulnerable in terms of public opinion and simply destroy them. Their victims are usually ordinary people expressing their values, opinions, and beliefs – and they’re up against a very talented and articulate defamation machine.””

The SPLC accuses their ideological opponents of inciting hatred and violence, but listening to the SPLC’s rhetoric and viewing their propaganda show them guilty of exactly what they are supposedly against. Indeed, the SPLC’s hypocrisy and ideological prejudice became so obvious, along with their influence on Corkins, that the F.B.I. eventually (in early 2014) became disgusted enough to sever ties (including web-links) with them.

Side note: I wonder how the Black Lives Matter people feel about the SPLC providing training to law-enforcement groups. Well, as long as BLM doesn’t end of on the “dangerous” list, I guess….

As Vadum wrote back in 2012, the SPLC’s behavior is “far worse” than reckless.

“It is calculated and malicious, intended to foment hatred and raise oceans of cash by bamboozling gullible liberals into giving money to what is one of the wealthiest nonprofit groups in the history of the United States.”

Dees himself doesn’t do too bad, either. As per The Washington Times editorial (2014):

“Morris Dees stayed in Alabama and built a 200-acre estate with tennis courts, a swimming pool and stables for his horses, and instead of doing good, did well. [Note: To be fair, he was already a multi-millionaire from his direct-mail marketing company’s success. He has used those talents to write multi-page alarmist fundraising letters to potential SPLC donors.]

“Poverty” quickly became enormously profitable. He was soon collecting millions and paying himself a salary far in excess of those paid to the heads of such advocacy groups as the ACLU, the Children’s Defense Fund and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.”

How wealthy is the SPLC, you ask?

SPLC Headquarters

According to their 2016 financial statements, they have a hefty endowment fund with net assets exceeding $319 million, plus a total operating fund valued at nearly $34 million. A couple weeks ago, Jeryl Bier at The Weekly Standard reported that a chunk of that endowment — over $69 million in “non-U.S. equity funds” — is in offshore equities and other investments in places including the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and Bermuda. Beryl also mentions that “2016 contributions topped $45 million”. Where does this come from? There are a few big names, like George Soros. But, as SPLC president Richard Cohen once told The Weekly Standard‘s Charlotte Allen, many of their donors are “aging Northern-state “1960s liberals” who continue to associate “Southern” and “poverty” with lynchings, white-hooded Klansmen, and sitting at the back of the bus, and thanks also to what can only be described as the sheer genius at direct-mail marketing of Dees….”

One might assume the center provides a *lot* of legal assistance. But, as Greg Gutfield said recently on “The Five”:

“The Center paid out $20 million in salaries in 2015, but provided just $61K in legal assistance. So the Southern Poverty Law Center appears to have no poverty – and do virtually no law. It’s the most misleading name since the Democratic Party.”

(Looks closer to $3-4 million to me, but I’m not sure what Gutfield was including in “legal assistance”.)

Ironically, the SPLC’s harshest critics are on the progressive left — from The Progressive and Harper’s to the late Alexander Cockburn, columnist for The Nation and webzine CounterPunch, to the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who called Dees “a [shamelessly self-promoting] fraud and a con man” who spends a lot but accomplishes little.

So, there you have it. The Southern Poverty Law Center is a self-appointed watchdog group that has increasingly become a sham. While it has taken out some nasty people in the past, it now uses identity politics activism to further its goal of destroying the lives and careers of as many as it can on the right side of the ideological spectrum, while making as much money as possible doing it.

Footnote:  After ending his partnership with Dees, Millard Fuller and his family became Christian missionaries and he later founded Habitat for Humanity International, followed by a similar organization, The Fuller Center for Housing. Fuller received various humanitarian awards & honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, before his death in 2009.

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