President and CEO Richard Cohen

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Cohen, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1955, has headed the SPLC since 2003, succeeding Joseph R. Levin. Cohen, a graduate of Columbia and the University of Virginia’s law school, had previously been SPLC’s legal director (from 1986 to 2003).

Cohen, a diligent lawyer and administrator, led the Center to many court victories, to be sure against organizations that were often marginal even by the standards of the Ku Klux Klan. Doubtless much of the responsibility for executing a strategy whereby such organizations could be held civilly accountable for unauthorized outrages by members, then assessed multimillion-dollar judgments that, while uncollectible, could immediately be turned into propaganda for even more lucrative appeals, belongs to Cohen.

Richard Cohen


As the Center’s legal director Cohen also brought successful suits on behalf of prisoners, illegal aliens, “equal education,” and was able to force removal of the Southern battle flag from the Alabama State House in Montgomery.

As president and CEO Cohen has lobbied energetically to clear the Jena 6 (black students who brutally beat a white in the high school cafeteria) and for solving and prosecution of alleged murders committed during the civil rights era (the FBI’s “Cold Cases” project).

Under Cohen’s leadership the Center inaugurated its Immigrant Justice Project, which (see consideration below) appears to dodge the illegal hiring and exploitation of immigrants in the manufacturing and retail sectors in favor of concentrating on easier targets among employers of migrant agricultural labor in the South.

Cohen frequently testifies before Congress and other bodies on behalf of legislation favored by SPLC and other aspects of the Center’s agenda. Two years ago, in sworn testimony, he told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that an unsolved, and almost certainly bogus, noose hanging at Columbia University was an example of the “widespread nature of hate crimes.”

In other testimony to Congress, Cohen urged a two-track approach to “hate crimes” by juveniles, urging stern prosecution of teenage offenders but calling for prosecutorial discretion for, e.g., the (black) “Jena Six” assailants of a white classmate; Cohen told legislators that “prosecutors see race,” strongly implying that prosecutors should see white offenders and black victims