The SPLC: Past, Present, Future

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The Southern Poverty Law Center 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, apportionment of electoral districts, etc. 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 a black for shooting a Klansman two years earlier in Decatur, Alabama. Klanwatch activities included monitoring of Klan and Nazi groups and—far more effective for gaining media notice and support from its contributors, reportedly disproportionately older, monied Jewish 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 leftist, Jewish, and gay zealots 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.

Thwarting SPLC’s efforts at censorship, let alone depriving the Center of the goodwill that it enjoys from government, media, and much of the public, will thus not be easy. A strategy, with supporting data, for countering SPLC based on key internal contradictions, is presented below. This strategy first identifies, in contradiction with the Center’s standing as a respectable think tank, serious deficiencies in its research and reporting on “hate groups,” “hate crimes,” and domestic terrorism. Next, the source of these deficiencies is revealed: SPLC’s deliberate distortion for propaganda’s sake, above all in diabolizing its targets and exaggerating their threat, in order to increase donations as well as to affect policy and perceptions regarding hate groups. To further explain such distortion, the leftist and Communist affinities of a number of SPLC’s staffers and contributors to the Center’s publications are outlined, as well as an apparently high percentage of zealots for gay rights, minority preference, and other SPLC causes among staffers and contributors.

For its implementation, the recommended strategy calls for exploiting and explaining these deficiencies and contradictions, thus  “deconstructing” SPLC. That these flaws spring from characteristics central to SPLC (e.g., an image of probity that masks its lack of scruples in amassing a vast war chest to advance covertly leftist aims) suggests their exploitation can hit home. Furthermore, this strategy offers an approach that can be hard-hitting yet objective, deriving from facts and analysis easily verifiable from the Center’s own publications and website and thus evading the trap of sounding subjective and biased one’s self.


Founder and Chief Counsel Morris S. Dees

Founder and leader Morris Seligman Dees has been central to SPLC’s success from 1971 to the present day. The son of an Alabama farmer (b. December 16, 1936, in Shorter, Alabama), Dees has been energetic and enterprising from an early age. Ascribing his best lessons in sales to his boyhood exposure to Baptist preachers (“I learned everything I know about hustling from the Baptist Church,” Dees has said. “Spending Sundays on those hard benches listening to the preacher pitch salvation—why, it was like getting a Ph.D. in selling”),

Dees amassed a fortune from direct marketing while still at the University of Alabama law school. The specifics on Dees’s embrace of left-liberal politics and subsequent decision to advance the African-American civil rights movement through SPLC are uncertain; Dees himself has cast skepticism on the significance of an oft-cited epiphany he earlier claimed to have experienced in 1969.

Whatever psychological, sociological, or other motives inspired Dees’s alleged conversion, his prodigious abilities in selling and promoting enabled him to make the SPLC a going concern—the policies and assets of which he seems to firmly control through well-chosen proxies—from its foundation. While heading SPLC and actively leading its legal work in the 1970s and `80s, Dees also raised millions for Democratic presidential candidates George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and Gary Hart, sometimes taking mailing lists of Democratic prospects in payment for his services.

Morris Dees’s talents and character have played the key role in the development of the Center from 1) a civil-rights law firm to 2) a public relations–savvy crusader against the Klan to 3) its present incarnation as a watchdog whose bark and bite threaten free discussion of America’s racial and immigration problems. Dees’s ability to enlist talent and to attract money from the radical fringe, coupled with his considerable business skills, have resulted in an organization that effectively advances a leftist agenda utilizing state of the art fundraising and publicity methods. Nearly as decisive has been his stated desire for a “blend of exciting [as well as] socially significant cases,” which surely played a role in the de-emphasizing of the humdrum affirmative action suits the Center began with.

SPLC’s often criticized lack of scruples in its legal tactics (Dees himself was arrested for suborning perjury in the 1970s); in smearing and spying on its opponents; and above all in its fundraising techniques, likely reflect traits of its founder, whom Millard Farmer, a former SPLC attorney, likened to notorious televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, with the proviso that he wished not to insult the Bakkers by the comparison.

Dees has weathered numerous attacks from left and right accusing him of opportunism, greed, and various sexual quirks (alleged by a former wife during divorce proceedings). Possibly his embrace of the civil rights agenda and left-liberal politics is the result of social resentments over his allegedly humble beginnings as the son of a sharecropper. Perhaps his behavior and motives are better explained by a craving to be famous, like his hero, early twentieth century radical lawyer Clarence Darrow, a desire colored by what seems to be a considerable personal vanity.

Whatever the determinants of his character and motives, whatever his private peccadilloes, Dees (and more important his support base) have so far proved unflappable in the face of personal attacks. Thus it is urged that successful attacks on Dees and SPLC will target contradictions and deficiencies in the SPLC’s claimed expertise on hate groups, revealing the biases and self-interest behind these.


Co-Founder Joseph J. Levin, Jr.

SPLC cofounder Joseph J. Levin has been a fairly colorless counterpart to Dees, but his experience in Washington with the federal government and in private practice has brought SPLC much practical legal expertise. He has served as SPLC’s legal director SPLC (1971-6), as president and board chairman, and, since 2003, as the Center’s president emeritus.

While in private practice, Levin represented the University of North Carolina in a desegregation suit brought against it by the U.S. Health, Education and Welfare Department. Levin subsequently represented universities in Alabama and Louisiana in similar efforts to mitigate desegregation and affirmative action decrees from Washington, efforts ostensibly contrary to SPLC’s blanket support for forced integration.,+Purpose+and+Higher+Education+Friday+Levin&source=bl&ots=ftjRt3GJhx&sig=-ZyJlHgWqH145hGr2e3eXcRIp9Q&hl=en&ei=rzwRS4b5AcG8lAfR3aSNBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Levin&f=false

Indeed, a writer for the Center recently characterized a black academic’s opposition to affirmative action akin to that defended by Levin as “Appeasing the Beast.” One can only speculate which Kleagle or Obersturmbannfuehrer SPLC might have linked and tied Levin to if he weren’t already intimately connected to the SPLC.


President and CEO Richard Cohen

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).

By all indications Cohen is a diligent lawyer and administrator who 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.

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


President Emeritus, Julian Bond

Bond, a civil rights pioneer associated with the movement’s radical wing (he was a founder of the leftist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), was SPLC’s first president (1971–9) and now serves as the Center’s president emeritus and a member of its Board of Directors.

Bond has had a varied career as a state legislator, academic, and chairman of the NAACP, but accusations of heavy cocaine use from his estranged wife and political opponents in the 1980s and ‘90s marred his reputation (and perhaps pointed to a problem that reduced his effectiveness). <>

Unlike many of the civil rights movement’s adherents, Bond has championed black-Jewish collaboration, and is currently married to the former Pamela Horowitz. Bond is an ardent proponent of gay marriage, and has described the Confederate battle flag as the “Confederate swastika”—all of which make him a useful figurehead for SPLC. <>

Bond would seem to have little input and impact on the Center’s management and direction, and, as with other civil rights leaders who had burned out or otherwise lost credibility, serves as little more than a figurehead.


Director, Intelligence Project Mark Potok

Mark Potok, who is also editor of SPLC’s periodical Intelligence Project, has overseen the Center’s vaunted research on “hate groups” and “hate crimes” during the dozen years (1997-present) he has worked for the Center.

Potok, who left the University of Chicago without graduating over thirty years ago, would seem to have little academic or practical experience to qualify him as an expert on dissident groups and ideologies.

Potok’s special expertise—tabloid-style emotionalism and “branding” through well-couched smear or deft innuendo—builds on his twenty-year career as a journalist (USA Today, theDallas Times Herald, and the Miami Herald), during which he covered the Oklahoma City bombing and the militias. His skill with shrill and lurid verbiage, joined to SPLC’s techniques for discerning “links and ties” (what was called “guilt by association” when practiced by Sen. Joseph McCarthy), has imbued the Center’s invective with a new urgency fed by classic yellow journalism as well as the take-no-prisoners zeal of the classic extremist. Potok’s attacks on mainstream figures who have dared to differ with the Center are just as revealing: to cite a representative instance, in SPLC’s blog he called the combative conservative columnist Ann Coulter “rabid” and her book Guilty a “foaming-mouth tome.”

Potok has admitted that SPLC’s methodology has been suspect: he stated that the Center’s “number counts for [“hate groups”] initially weren’t very reliable” (while failing to explain why current counts are any more trustworthy [see below]).

Potok has conceded that only a tiny minority of “hate crimes” is carried out by “hate groups,” but implied that such groups influence “hate crimes” offenders. He has also claimed that the FBI reports well under 10 percent of all “hate crimes” committed.

In line with SPLC practice, Potok has concentrated on white, right-wing, “nativist,” and domestic “hate groups.” to the practical exclusion of nonwhite, left-wing, and foreign ones (see “Hate Groups” below). Under his leadership, the Center’s Intelligence Project has strained to exaggerate the domestic terror threat from the right and to minimize the danger of imported Islamist terror, a position that the 9/11 attacks (carried out by aliens, many here illegally) have made much less tenable. Potok has praised a recent Department of Homeland Security report that, thanks in great part to SPLC’s input, was so focused on lawful and law-abiding groups (including returning U.S. combat veterans) that it had to be disavowed; he has whined about the FBI dragging its feet on 60 “major” terrorist plots (while disregarding their work on radical Muslim plots).

In a revealing admission, Potok recently stated that it is the immigration control movement (which he called “a rush of people identifying with a nation-state and its borders”) itself, here and in Europe, rather than “hate groups” as such, that concerns SPLC.

Not much is available through the Internet on Potok’s life and ideological background. He is evidently married and has adopted a child.

He has given cordial interviews to at least two hard-core communist periodicals, the Trotskyite Socialist Worker and the People’s Weekly World (formerly the American Communist Party’s Daily Worker); similar links with dissident groups on the right have been invoked by Potok as proof of shared sympathies.

Sources for Potok’s radicalism may include his Jewish heritage “…let me state for the record that most of my father’s side of the family died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz” and his unprepossessing looks. More laborious research might uncover hidden leftist, if not communist, associations from his university days.