The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has one key message: The nation is boiling over with hatred and intolerance. Decades after the civil rights movement forever changed America and despite the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the imposition of affirmative action, American race relations are always worse today than in the days of Jim Crow, according to SPLC.
“Hate in America is a dreadful, daily constant. The dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Tex.; the crucifixion of a gay man in Laramie, Wyo.; and post-9/11 hate crimes against hundreds of Arab-Americans, Muslim Americans and Sikhs are not ‘isolated incidents.’ They are eruptions of a nation’s intolerance.” That’s the message posted at Tolerance.org, a center website for its special project, “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”
“Somewhere in America … EVERY HOUR someone commits a hate crime. EVERY DAY at least eight blacks, four gays or lesbians, two Jews, two whites and one Latino become hate crimes victims. EVERY WEEK a cross is burned,” according to the guide [emphasis in original]. If the center’s math is correct, 8,760 “hate crimes” are committed in the U.S. every year and 52 crosses are burned. But that’s not exactly a tidal wave of bigotry in an ethnically diverse nation of 300 million people.
The SPLC understands the importance of language. It fights what it labels “hate,” “intolerance” and “discrimination,” but it defines those terms very differently than most Americans would. To the center, you practice “hate” whenever you fail to genuflect with politically correct reverence before every human difference.
In the SPLC’s world, armies of the night are forever on the march. Cross-burnings, lynchings and rampant racial discrimination are omnipresent. Those who question the SPLC’s approach to race are blacklisted as contemptible bigots.
The center lumps all sorts of groups on America’s political right together, labeling them enemies of the Republic. Conservative, libertarian, anti-tax, immigration reductionist and other groups are all viewed as legitimate targets for vilification.
SPLC has an enormous endowment of more than $152 million, according to its 2005 annual report. Its IRS Form 990 for the fiscal year ended Oct. 31, 2005, shows that the center took in gross receipts of $49.8 million that year, $29.7 million of which consisted of contributions and grants.
According to its balance sheet, by Oct. 31, 2005, its total assets had ballooned from $173.2 million at the beginning of the fiscal year, to $189.4 million by year’s end. SPLC’s endowment is so large that it reported endowment income of nearly $3.5 million, including interest income of $728,356.
Although SPLC bills itself as a civil rights law firm, it devotes only a fraction of its resources to actual legal work. Of the $28.9 million in expenses it declared for the year ended Oct. 31, 2005, only $4.5 million went to “providing legal services for victims of civil rights injustice and hate crimes,” and $837,907 for “specific assistance to individuals” in the form of “litigation services,” according to its Form 990. Roughly half of its expenditures, $14.7 million, were devoted to “educating the general public, public officials, teachers, students and law enforcement agencies and officers with respect to issues of hate and intolerance and promoting tolerance of differences through the schools.”
In the same period, SPLC paid attorney Morris Dees $297,559 in salary and
pension-plan contributions. On the list of nonprofit “employees who earned more than their organization’s chief executive,” (part of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual survey of top nonprofit executive salaries, published September 28), Dees ranked 48th in the nation. SPLC President Richard Cohen took home $274,838, but center co-founder Joseph L. Levin received only $171,904 for his efforts as general counsel.
Bond’s Smear Tactics
SPLC is based in Montgomery, Ala., site of the famous bus boycott that gave birth to the civil rights movement and made a national icon of Rosa Parks, the woman who courageously refused to move to the back of the bus. The center’s fortress-style headquarters seems intended to shield employees from the hordes of neo-Nazis, skinheads and militia groups the center wants people to believe wish to do it harm.
The co-founders of SPLC were Julian Bond and Morris Dees. Bond is the founding president. Since 1998, he has been chairman of the NAACP but remains active with the center and currently serves on its board of directors. A highly visible public figure, he is well acquainted with its smear tactics, having compared conservatives and the Bush Administration to Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime.
Bond has smeared black conservatives with relish, deriding them for joining what he calls “a right-wing conspiracy” aimed at eliminating affirmative action, abridging voting rights and reforming public education. In 2002, he told an NAACP convention that black conservatives were participants in “an interlocking network of funders, groups and activists…. They are the money, the motivation and the movement behind vouchers, the legal assault on affirmative action and other remedies for discrimination, attempts to reapportion us out of office and attacks on equity everywhere.” These conservatives are “black hustlers and hucksters … [who], like ventriloquists’ dummies, speak in their puppet master’s voice,” he said. Bond called anti-racial quota campaigner Ward Connerly a “fraud” and a “con man.”
In February of this year, at Fayetteville State University in Arkansas, Bond warned that Republicans’ “idea of equal rights is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side,” the Fayetteville Observer reported. When his comments provoked a firestorm of criticism, Bond lied, denying he likened the GOP to the Nazi Party. He accused “right-wing blogs” of mischaracterizing his statement: “I didn’t say these things I’m alleged to have said. There is no one in the audience who can say I said them.” How wrong he was: The Observer posted a 45-minute recording of Bond’s speech online. In the same speech, Bond implied that Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were token black appointees in the Bush Administration, which was using them as “human shields against any criticism of their record on civil rights.”
For Bond, America is hopelessly racist. “Everywhere we see clear racial fault lines, which divide American society as much now as at any time in our past,” he said in 1999. One might expect Americans to push someone with Bond’s views to the margins of public life, alongside such racial provocateurs as Al Sharpton, yet Bond is an in-demand public speaker. He holds 23 honorary degrees and is now distinguished professor at American University and professor of history at the University of Virginia.
But Bond is strictly B-list compared to Morris Dees.
Dees is admired by left-wing and not-so-left-wing lawyers from coast to coast. A prestigious legal award has been named after him, and on November 16, the high-powered law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates and the University of Alabama School of Law awarded the first annual “Morris Dees Justice Award” to U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice of the Eastern District of Texas. The award will be given annually to “a lawyer who has devoted his or her career to serving the public interest and pursuing justice and whose work has brought about positive change in the community, state or nation.” One of the rulings for which Judge Justice is honored would puzzle many strict constructionist legal scholars and limited-government supporters. Justice’s ruling in a 1982 case, Plyler v. Doe, opened the doors for children of illegal aliens to attend public schools through grade 12 at public expense.
Dees is a consummate salesman and a champion fundraiser. “I learned everything I know about hustling from the Baptist Church. Spending Sundays sitting on those hard benches, listening to the preacher pitch salvation … why it was like getting a Ph.D. in selling,” he said. Dees was finance director for Democrat George McGovern’s failed 1972 presidential bid and for other Democratic candidates. He raised more than $24 million from 600,000 small donors, marking the first time a presidential campaign was financed with small gifts by mail, according to Dees’s official biography on SPLC’s website.
Years before co-founding the SPLC, Dees launched a successful direct-mail sales company specializing in book publishing. However, he experienced an epiphany in 1967 and decided to take his life in a new direction and “speak out for my black friends who were still ‘disenfranchised’ even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Dees wrote in his autobiographical A Season for Justice. “Little had changed in the South. Whites held the power and had no intention of voluntarily sharing it.”
Dees’s former legal associate, Millard Farmer, describes the crusading lawyer as “the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement,” adding, “though I don’t mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye.” Former associates say Dees is obsessed with making money.
Criticism and Scandal
The media generally accord Dees roughly the same level of respect as the late Mother Teresa. He has been the subject of a made-for-television movie, along with countless articles, and worshipful magazine profiles. Yet a rare, scathing portrait of Dees titled “The Church of Morris Dees” by left-wing author Ken Silverstein appeared in the November 2000 Harper’s magazine. Under the leadership of Dees, SPLC “spends most of its time—and money—on a relentless fundraising campaign, peddling memberships in the church of tolerance with all the zeal of a circuit rider passing the collection plate,” wrote Silverstein.
The SPLC took another hit in 2001 when JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in the leftist Nation magazine that the center was preoccupied with making money. “In 1999, it spent $2.4 million on litigation and $5.7 million on fundraising, meanwhile taking in more than $44 million—$27 million from fundraising, the rest from investments,” she wrote.
Wypijewski also criticized the center’s work on hate groups. “No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of [hate] groups than the center’s millionaire huckster, Morris Dees, who, in 1999, began a begging letter, ‘Dear Friend, The danger presented by the Klan is greater now than at any time in the past 10 years,’” she wrote. Of course, the Ku Klux Klan is a genuine hate group. It had about four million members 80 years ago when it held sway over several state legislatures. Today, however, it has withered away to maybe 3,000 members.
The SPLC seems to have steered clear of scandal in recent years, but it received plenty of bad press in the mid-1990s. In 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser published a series of investigative articles alleging improprieties, including financial mismanagement and institutionalized racism. Black former employees of the center complained that white supervisors ran it “like a plantation.” The series was a nominated finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, but Dees orchestrated a lobbying campaign to stop publication and prevent it from being considered by the Pulitzer board.
Jim Tharpe, then managing editor of the Advertiser, described his SPLC-related adventures at a Nieman Foundation for Journalism panel discussion held at Harvard University in May 1999. According to Tharpe, SPLC deployed what is typically considered a corporate public relations weapon to prevent the investigation. It threatened what has come in recent years to be known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP action. Such suits are calculated to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense unless they withdraw their criticism.
“These guys threatened us with a lawsuit from the moment we asked to look at their financial records,” Tharpe said, according to a transcript of the talk provided on the Nieman Foundation’s website.
Reporters found the center had accumulated a huge surplus. “It was $50-something million at that time; it’s now approaching $100 million, but they’ve never spent more than 31% of the money they were bringing in on programs, and sometimes they spent as little as 18%. Most nonprofits spend about 75% on programs,” Tharpe said. SPLC donors had no idea how financially secure the center was, he said. “The charity watchdog groups, the few that are in existence, had consistently criticized the center, even though nobody had reported that.”
Reporters also uncovered that what is arguably the nation’s wealthiest civil rights group—which contends that racism pervades all of American society—had no blacks in top management positions. “Twelve out of the 13 black current and former employees we contacted cited racism at the center, which was a shocker to me. As of 1995, the center had hired only two black attorneys in its entire history,” Tharpe said.
Tharpe’s team also uncovered what he called “questionable fundraising tactics.” The SPLC handled the case of Michael Donald, a young black man who was brutally murdered in Mobile by Klansmen in 1981. After the perpetrators were convicted, the center filed suit against the KKK organization to which they belonged and secured a $7-million judgment, Tharpe explained.
“The problem was the people who killed this kid didn’t have any money. What they really got out of it was a $51,000 building that went to the mother of Michael Donald. What the center got and what we reported was they raised $9 million in two years using the Donald case, including a mailing with the body of Michael Donald as part of it. The top center officials, I think the top three, got $350,000 in salaries during that time, and Morris got a movie out of it, a TV movie of the week.”
Defining ‘Hate Group’
The SPLC frequently smears groups it disagrees with as “racist.”
Although the SPLC’s list of hate groups includes groups that are based on racial hatred such as the Ku Klux Klan and the black separatist groups New Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam, which is headed by anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, it lists other groups whose claim to the dishonor is more dubious.
The SPLC accuses the American Enterprise Institute, an influential conservative think tank, of links to racism, in part because it has employed a well-known conservative intellectual, writer Dinesh D’Souza, as its John M. Olin Fellow. AEI is part of “an array of right-wing foundations and think tanks [that] support efforts to make bigoted and discredited ideas respectable,” noted the summer 2003 issue of Intelligence Report, a center magazine. D’Souza is a scholar “whose views are seen by many as bigoted or even racist,” the article stated. But why attack D’Souza, a dark-skinned immigrant to the U.S. from India? Could it be because the acclaimed author has made powerful attacks on the kind of racial alarmism that is the SPLC’s bread and butter?
In The End of Racism (1995), D’Souza argued that “virtually all contemporary liberal assumptions about the origin of racism, its historical significance, its contemporary effects, and what to do about it are wrong.” D’Souza also pilloried opportunistic race-baiters. “It is the civil rights industry that now has a vested interest in the persistence of the ghetto, because the miseries of poor blacks are the best advertisement for continuing programs of racial preference and set-asides,” D’Souza wrote.
And then there are all those Nazis. According to a recent edition of Intelligence Report, admirers of the Third Reich have infiltrated the U.S. armed services: “Neo-Nazis ‘stretch across all branches of service, they are linking up across the branches once they’re inside, and they are hard-core,’ Department of Defense gang detective Scott Barfield told the Intelligence Report. ‘We’ve got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad,’ he added. ‘That’s a problem.’”
Accompanying the article, “A Few Bad Men,” by David Holthouse, is a painting of a row of helmeted U.S. soldiers in uniform with their arms raised in a Nazi salute. Since America is deeply racist, according to the SPLC, it only follows that its military must be racist as well.
A September smear of a politician who takes a hard line on immigration illustrates the SPLC’s standard operating procedure for dealing with those hostile to its open-borders agenda.
After Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a Republican who favors tougher immigration policies, addressed a Columbia, S.C., event that its organizer noted was open to all, the SPLC falsely characterized the event as being sponsored by the League of the South. The center considers that obscure group to be a “neo-Confederate,” “white nationalist” hate group.
Following Tancredo’s speech, a self-serving report titled “Congressman addresses hate group,” appeared on the SPLC’s website, creating the impression that the event was an official League of the South event. But a Denver Post report from September 13 quoted Garland McCoy, head of an activist group called Americans Have Had Enough, saying his group hosted the event, which he said anyone was free to attend.
The SPLC report also marveled at how Tancredo could give a speech “from behind a podium draped in a Confederate battle flag,” and with a portrait of Robert E. Lee in plain sight. However, Tancredo delivered his speech at the South Carolina State Museum, which has a permanent Confederate Army exhibit. Is it surprising that Confederate paraphernalia was present?
The center has also gone after the Minuteman Project, which seeks to monitor illegal border crossings into the U.S. from Mexico. The Minuteman group has a broad base of support among conservatives and throughout the nation as a whole, but was labeled racist last year by the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. It may take some intellectual toughness to insist that the nation has the right to decide who may or may not cross its borders, but surely it’s not hate.
But Morris Dees doesn’t see it that way. He sees all opposition to immigration as a symptom of hate. When, in 2004, a slate of anti-immigration candidates sought election to the Sierra Club, a prominent environmentalist group, Dees offered himself as an alternative candidate, urging his fellow club members to “vote against the greening of hate.” The club had long been on record as favoring a stable U.S. population in order to reduce alleged strains on the environment. According to Dees’s twisted reasoning, doesn’t this mean the club was already a bastion of hate?
A disinterested observer might conclude that Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center are irrelevant activists left over from the 1960s, hangers-on to memories of past civil rights campaigns. They trudge on, enamored of their own propaganda.
Richard Samp, chief counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, told Organization Trends that he finds it difficult to take anything the SPLC does nowadays seriously. “There are so many of these [liberal groups] that they have to speak in particularly shrill tones in order to distinguish themselves from the many other groups out there,” Samp said. “I certainly disagree with their saying America is racist. I don’t think they really believe that,” he said.
SPLC’s hyping of racism in America is “simply fundraising puffery,” Samp said.
Yet it may be too easy to dismiss SPLC. It has mastered the art of inflaming racial passions, and in doing so, it undermines Americans’ confidence in the nation’s racial progress. SPLC’s activism may be too profitable an enterprise for it to give up, but it can have a corrosive effect on our politics. Jim Sleeper, author of Liberal Racism, wrote that “there is a race industry that has a moral and financial stake in ginning up these racial bogeymen.” Sleeper told columnist Deroy Murdock that the race industry makes “a real effort to play up the bad news and play down the good…. The ground is shifting under our feet, and a lot of these people don’t want to let go.”