The SPLC was founded as a non-profit in 1971 in Montgomery, Alabama, by Morris Dees, a lawyer who had made millions through direct mail marketing, and Joseph Levin, also an Alabama attorney. Its initial purpose was to advance civil rights through legal action. Both Dees and Levin were liberal Democrats; following the founding of SPLC Dees raised tens of millions for George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and other Democratic presidential candidates.
In the first decade of its existence SPLC devoted itself primarily to litigation against state, city, and federal governmental instances of supposed discrimination, including alleged racial imbalance among Alabama state troopers, in the application of the death penalty, and apportionment of electoral districts. Perhaps its highest profile case in those years was the murder trial of Joan Little, a black career criminal accused of murdering a white prison guard. During the trial Dees was arrested and removed from the courtroom for attempting to bribe a pro-Little witness, though he was never tried.
In 1981 SPLC began its Klanwatch project, which grew out of research for appeal of the conviction of Curtis Robinson for shooting a Klansman during a public demonstration two years earlier in Decatur, Alabama. Klanwatch activities included monitoring of Klan and neo-Nazi groups and — far more effective for gaining media notice and support from its contributors, a disproportionately older, cosmopolitan, liberal constituency from New York and other large cities — vastly exaggerating their strength and menace. Klanwatch has reportedly also been a means for SPLC to share information on extreme-right groups with contacts in the FBI and other law enforcement departments following restrictions on government infiltration and surveillance of lawful organizations imposed in the 1970s.
During the 1980s SPLC began to concentrate on suing Klan, Nazi, and other racialist groups for crimes committed by their members against nonwhites. By then commanding large financial and legal resources (and swaying juries with often tenuous evidence that members’ crimes had been authorized by leadership), the Center was able to win a succession of huge judgments against various fringe groups, effectively bankrupting most of them. The defendants were able to pay only small fractions of the monies obtained to SPLC’s clients, while SPLC was able to exploit the trials to bring in millions in donations from its supporters. The 1983 destruction of its offices in an arson attack by Klansmen, far from being a setback, served as both an affirmation of SPLC’s effectiveness and an opportunity to raise funds for a glittering new headquarters.
During the same decade SPLC began to draw criticism from the mainstream. Former employees, including the influential black activist Randall Robinson, faulted the shift toward sensationalizing and exploiting the vestigial Klan and Nazi movements at the expense of its original legal agenda. Others pointed to the virtual absence of blacks among the leadership of an organization expressly dedicated to sustaining and expanding the African-American civil rights movement. And, as SPLC’s revenues continued to grow, analysts of nonprofits expressed increasing concern at the serious imbalance between the Center’s vast assets and its relatively small expenditures.
During the 1990s SPLC extended its reach to new audiences through new programs. In 1991 it began “Teaching Tolerance,” an initiative aimed at promoting “diversity” in elementary and high schools through distributing materials aimed at inducing a reverential awe for racial, religious, and sexual minorities. More ominously, in 1992 the Center began a program of indoctrinating local, state, and federal police organizations in its version of an extremist threat emanating from the far right; aside from promoting police snooping on harmless and law-abiding groups, SPLC’s “training” focused on solving “hate crimes”—a category of offense heavily prone to subjective and politicized interpretation—allegedly committed or inspired by its targets.
The growth of citizen “militias,” populist organizations devoted to paramilitary training, provided the Center with new grist for its fundraising and publicity during the Clinton presidency. The 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, despite his lack of provable links to right-wing groups, was expertly exploited by SPLC (which sent out an Oklahoma City-themed fundraising appeal within days of the attack). Meanwhile, it continued to litigate and win big (but usually unrecoverable) judgments against marginal “hate” groups, including the Church of the Creator and the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, for crimes committed by “loose cannon” members.
At the same time SPLC was gradually shifting its emphasis from violence-prone groups on the right-wing fringe to attacking organizations and individuals on ideological grounds. The Center has claimed that its discovery of “links” between nonviolent nationalist groups and Klan and Nazi organizations inspired this shift; just as likely the need to sensationalize for fundraising and the opportunity to smear groups hostile to SPLC’s by now pronouncedly leftist and lockstep “multiculturalist” ideology inspired the unearthing of the often tenuous links. To signify its new approach, in 1998 the Center renamed “Klanwatch” the “Intelligence Project.”
The attacks of September 11, 2001 were a setback for SPLC’s efforts to attribute domestic terror almost entirely to the extreme nationalist fringe: the slaughter of 9/11 emanated from Third World terrorists, most of whom were in America illegally. The Center’s response to 9/11 has been to combat alleged discrimination aimed at Muslims and to oppose Bush administration security measures it deems infringe on civil rights. SPLC has continued a strident propaganda that claims that domestic rightists, rather than Islamist immigrants, constitute the chief threat to America’s security. Developments such as the recent murderous rampage at Ft. Hood by a Muslim extremist and various terror plots uncovered by the FBI have undercut the Center’s efforts; also detrimental to SPLC’s rosy view of diversity has been increasing violence between nonwhite groups, above all between blacks and Hispanics.
Earlier this year a Missouri state agency, working on guidelines derived from SPLC and its allies, urged police that supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, and other conservative politicians should be considered “‘militia’ influenced terrorists”; popular furor forced withdrawal of the Missouri instructions. The Missouri report was merely a somewhat more strident version of one issued by the Department of Homeland Security, which downplayed the threat from Muslim extremists while warning against a putative terror danger from U.S. veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Both reports depended heavily on SPLC findings.
During the past decade has SPLC further widened its web of “hate,” classifying nonracialist, mainstream organizations that opposed its program for imposed diversity as “hate groups.” Preeminent among the groups and individuals targeted have been moderate voices calling for immigration control. The Center has enjoyed marked success in tagging such opponents of illegal immigration as John Tanton and Roy Beck as “nativist extremists.” The recent success of its campaign to oust CNN reporter Lou Dobbs is to date the high water mark of SPLC’s campaign to restrict Americans’ freedom of speech on the questions of immigration and citizenship—a campaign that is recognizably part of a broader effort to control discussion on racial and national issues by establishing the Center as the arbiter of acceptable public speech.
Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center appears to be as influential and effective as ever. Most of SPLC’s effectiveness can be traced to the vision Morris Dees, who has combined a genius for salesmanship and promotion with a determination to enlist the fervor of the radical fringe to power his cause. Dees’s ability to appeal urgently and emotionally to monied sympathizers of the Old Left for donations and to recruit left-wing activists to advance the Center’s agenda, one that is well to the left of America’s current consensus as well its national traditions, has been central to SPLC’s impact. Working behind a façade of mainstream liberalism, the Center has been able to seamlessly integrate its fundraising, propaganda, legal, and “education” activities so that they mesh as effortlessly as the gears of a well-oiled machine to continually increase its vast assets, burnish its image, silence and destroy its enemies, and make its radical designs public policy.