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Southern Poverty Law Center: Activities, Agendas, and Worldview

By Jacob Laksin
Discover The Networks

The Southern Poverty Law Center is characterizing critics of last week’s pro-open borders rallies (held in several U.S. cities) as “anti-immigration extremists” who have made “open calls for terrorist violence, including truck bombs, machine gun attacks, and assassinations of U.S. senators and members of Congress.” To make the point, the SPLC website quotes extremist New Jersey radio host Hal Turner, who said, “I advocate using extreme violence against illegal aliens. Clean your guns. Have plenty of ammunition. Find out where the largest gathering of illegal aliens will be near you. Go to the area well in advance, scope out several places to position yourself and then do what has to be done."

To further buttress its condemnatory portrayal of those who oppose amnesty and open borders, SPLC quotes several anonymous individuals who recently posted similarly incendiary comments on various Internet websites. For example, it cites the comments of “a neo-Nazi using the pseudonym ‘Mr. 88’ … in a post on the white supremacist website Stormfront.” Said Mr. 88: “We are headed for civil war, folks. Are you ready? We have to start killing in massive numbers so that the savages of the world have fear of the almighty white man again! Killing is the only way to cure these ills!" SPLC also quotes what it called an “anti-immigration hardliner” identifying himself (or herself) as "GoHomeIllegals," who, in a post on the "Close Borders" Yahoo user group, advocated running over young protesters with automobiles. Moreover, SPLC notes that another Closed Borders user wrote: “When violent responses occur, the amount of support they receive will amaze you. Furthermore, when people see how utterly unable to stop them the government is, it will incite further acts, and so, until it snowballs into a full-scale shooting war. Picture every major city within 500 miles of Mexico turned into Beirut in 1983. All that's missing is the spark, and it won't be long in coming.”

In SPLC’s calculus, opponents of immigration control and enforcement are nothing more than hate-filled racists intent on killing nonwhite “immigrants.”

Founded in 1971 by a pair of Alabama lawyers, Morris Dees and Joe Levin, the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center quickly built a reputation as America’s leading “civil rights law firm,” suing Southern institutions resistant to desegregation, publicizing hate crimes, and using the media to denounce the perpetrators of those crimes. At the time of the SPLC’s founding, Julian Bond, who currently chairs the NAACP, was named the fledgling group’s first president.

During the 1970s and 1980s, SPLC courtroom challenges focused on such issues as reforming conditions in prisons and mental health facilities. When Klansmen in Decatur, Alabama disrupted a May 26, 1979 civil rights gathering, the SPLC filed its first civil suit against a major Klan organization. Within two years, the Center had launched its Klanwatch campaign (later renamed the Intelligence Project) “to monitor organized hate activity across the country.” In an effort to hold white supremacist leaders accountable for their followers’ violence, the SPLC sued for monetary damages on behalf of victims of Klan violence, effectively bankrupting several major Klan organizations and “draw[ing] national attention to the growing threat of white supremacist activity.” In the SPLC’s view, American society remains irredeemably rife with bigotry aimed at racial and ethnic minorities.

More recently, however, it is the SPLC that has found itself on the defensive. Critics from across the political spectrum charge the Center with betraying its professed commitment to advancing civil rights. The SPLC levels accusations of racism unjustly, branding as “bigoted” many groups and individuals whose only crime lies in their refusal to embrace the SPLC’s leftwing agenda. Some accuse the SPLC of pursuing revenue rather than justice, by orchestrating fundraising campaigns that exaggerate the prevalence of racism to ensure a steady stream of donations from the Center’s alarmed supporters. The SPLC consistently claims to detect evidence of white racism infesting virtually every crevice of American society. The Center states, for instance, “Like most of the southeastern U.S., Georgia has seen an explosion in Hispanic immigration in recent years — over a half million since 1990 alone. As hate groups exploit the racial tension stemming from the area’s growth, locals have launched violent attacks against immigrant workers.”  

The SPLC’s ideological biases are evident in its map of Active U.S. Hate Groups. Although the SPLC denounces extremist religious groups like the Jewish Defense League and Westboro Baptist Church, no mention is made of even a single extremist Muslim group. Similarly, while far-right groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens are tagged as hate groups, the SPLC withholds judgment on extremist leftwing groups. The aforementioned Intelligence Project, an SPLC initiative that monitors hate and extremist groups around the United States, is conspicuously selective in its scrutiny. Whereas rightwing groups are routinely the subjects of Intelligence Project reports, the political left, as evidenced by the dearth of critical literature, is above suspicion. In 2003, for instance, the SPLC hosted a forum called “Right-Wing Extremism in a Transatlantic Perspective,” which, as one SPLC report noted, sought to develop strategies to combat “the radical right.” Of the radical left, no mention was made.

As part of its transparently one-sided approach to outing alleged hate groups, the SPLC is not above flinging fictional charges against its ideological adversaries. One particularly egregious example was a 2003 article called “Into the Mainstream,” featured in the SPLC’s quarterly magazine, Intelligence Report. Authored by fringe leftist Chip Berlet, this tendentious report deliberately mangled quotes and omitted context, to make the case that “right-wing foundations and think tanks support efforts to make bigoted and discredited ideas respectable.” Among the groups that came in for the SPLC’s scorn was the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, and its founder, David Horowitz. After wresting, out of context, several of his quotes on the subjects of African Americans and slavery, the report charged Horowitz with a “selective rewriting of history”—a distortion so patently dishonest that it prompted Horowitz to pen an open letter to SPLC co-founder Morris Dees, wherein he answered the attack and called on Dees to apologize and remove the report from the SPLC’s Web site. Dees complied on neither count.

In support of the charge that the SPLC unfairly targets groups that do not share its politics, critics point to the Center’s comparatively charitable treatment of leftwing groups. Radical organizations like United for Peace and Justice, for instance, are hailed as “social justice groups,” a designation that also extends to feminist groups like Equality Now, a number of gay rights groups, Human Rights First, Amnesty International, and Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

The SPLC takes its commitment to leftwing politics yet further in its Teaching Tolerance program. Established in 1991, this initiative is billed as “an educational program to help K-12 teachers foster respect and understanding in the classroom.” Closer inspection, however, reveals that the program, far from a good-faith effort to instruct schoolchildren in the merits of tolerance, is designed to spread the virtues of political correctness among pupils while promoting liberal pieties among their teachers. One recent Teaching Tolerance campaign, for instance, urged students to oppose the use of Native American mascots among sports teams by taking up a letter-writing campaign. “The audience for their letters have included, but not been limited to, owners and players of professional sports teams, members of organizations opposed to the use of Native American mascots, high school and middle school principals, school board members, university trustees, university coaches, and the editor of the local newspaper,” boasted one teacher involved in the campaign.

Highlights of these campaigns are featured in a biannual publication, Teaching Tolerance magazine, which, according to the SPLC, boasts a circulation of 600,000 educators in more than 70 countries. Noting that nearly 90 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States are white, while 36 percent of students “are students of color,” one recent article suggested that this fact was evidence of racism in the teacher-hiring process. The article’s author ruminated about “how white teachers can help dismantle a legacy of racial domination and injustice,” offering proposals to “white teachers in challenging racial bias in curriculum and in school culture.”

A corollary to the Teaching Tolerance initiative is another SPLC Web site, Tolerance.org. Created in 2001, this site “offers a wide variety of resources to support anti-bias activism.” But Tolerance.org, like Teaching Tolerance, promulgates its own set of biases. In January of 2004, the site featured a broadside against the film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – calling it “little more than a glorified vision of white patriarchy.” The reviewer, a black woman, proceeded to denounce the cast as “manly men who are whiter than white.” She derided the film as “Eurocentric” and mocked its protagonists as “Anglo-Saxon souls.”

The SPLC regularly engages in fear-mongering to raise funds for its various campaigns. For instance, in 1992 it asserted that some 346 white-supremacist organizations were operating in the United States. However, that number was disputed by critics like Laird Wilcox, an author who has conducted research into extremism on both the far left and far right. According to Laird, “the actual figure is about 50.” Similarly, leftwing journalist Alexander Cockburn accused the SPLC’s Dees of raising funds “by frightening elderly liberals that the heirs of Adolf Hitler are about to march down Main Street.” Ethical questions about the SPLC’s tactics were also raised by Harper’s Magazine, which took issue with the SPLC’s wont for suing entire hate groups for the crimes commited by its indvidual members, “a practice that, however seemingly justified, should give civil libertarians pause.” Harper’s further chastised the SPLC for abandoning leftwing causes in order to woo well-heeled benefactors with trumped-up claims of right-wing extremism.


On the evidence of its current activities, such censure has gone unheeded by the SPLC, which persists in maintaining that the danger posed by rightwing hate groups is far greater than generally believed. When a November 2004 FBI report revealed a total of 7,489 hate crime incidents in 2003, spokeswoman Heidi Beirich immediately faulted the findings for understating the magnitude of hate crimes committed in the U.S. “We have found several flaws [with the FBI report],” insisted Beirich. “We think there’s really more like 50,000 hate crimes out there each year.”

On occasion, in its zeal to highlight the alleged dangers of rightwing extremism, the SPLC puts forth erroneous information. In October 2004, for instance, the SPLC’s chief investigator, Joe Roy, accused Macon State College professor Roger Roots, who had a history of extremism, of being a former leader of the Knights of the KKK—charges that were published in Georgia’s Macon Telegraph newspaper but were later proved to be wholly untrue. 

However dubious from an ethical standpoint, such tactics have proven a financial windfall for the SPLC, —a fact demonstrated by the Center’s significant endowment. Created in 1974, the endowment sets aside funds for the day when, according to the SLCP’s directors, “nonprofits like the Center can no longer afford to solicit support through the mail because of rising postage and printing costs.” Reports indicate that the SPLC will have little to worry about in this respect. In 1996, USA Today hailed the SPLC, with its $68 million in assets, as “the nation’s richest civil rights organization.” Since then, the Center’s fortunes have only improved. At the end of fiscal year 2003, the SPLC’s endowment totaled $120.6 million.

The SPLC’s financing strategy has incurred the ire of critics. In 1995 Alabama’s Montgomery Advertiser published a series of investigative reports about the Center’s operations. Although the paper had initially been sympathetic to the SPLC’s leftwing aims—“[W]e were essentially boosters for the Center. We parroted their press releases,” Advertiser editor Jim Tharpe later recalled—it decided to pursue the series based on leads from former SPLC employees. What the paper found was that the SPLC, throughout its history, had never spent more than 31 percent of its income on actual programs. Whereas many nonprofit organizations spent upward of 75 percent of their budgets on operational programs, the SPLC regularly spent as little as 18 percent.

The Advertiser’s reports also raised questions about the SPLC’s fundraising practices. In one instance, the SPLC won a celebrated $7 million settlement after suing a Ku Klux Klan organization in Alabama. However, because the Klan had no means of paying off the sum, the SPLC’s client, the mother of a black man lynched by Klansmen, received only a $51,000 building, formerly belonging to the Klan, as reimbursement. Far more substantial was the SPLC’s profit. Having garnered $9 million in donations in a two-year fundraising campaign for the trial, the SPLC’s directors afforded themselves salaries of $350,000 for its duration. A 1998 survey conducted by the National Journal, a nonpartisan publication, shed further light on the benefits that SPLC heads have reaped from their organization. Comparing a list of 78 advocacy groups, the survey showed that Morris Dees earned tens of thousands of dollars more than the officers of most of the groups, including the heads of such prominent organizations as the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Children’s Defense Fund.

Findings like these provoked more questions about the SPLC’s fundraising practices. After the SPLC took in more than $44 million in revenue—$27 million from fundraising and $17 million from stocks and other investments—in 1999, The Nation magazine lambasted the Center for spending nearly $6 million on fundraising activities but only $2.4 million on litigation. “What is the Southern Poverty Law Center doing?” asked Nation senior editor JoAnn Wypijewski. Answering her own question, she wrote, “Mostly making money.” More criticism lay in store. In 2003, Virginia’s Fairfax Journal called attention to the fact that the tax-exempt SPLC, a participating member of the federal government’s yearly workplace fundraising drive known as the Combined Federal Campaign, had failed an audit by the Arlington-based Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. The audit stipulated that at least 50 percent of an organization’s total income should be set aside to fund its programs. Instead, 89 percent of the Center’s budget went toward fundraising and administrative costs. Adding up the numbers, the Journal observed that anyone wishing to make a $100 donation to the SPLC would find that only $11 went to the Center’s expressed mission of advancing civil rights. “Not much bang for the buck there,” the paper stated. 

Between 2000 and 2003, the SPLC was the recipient of 48 foundation grants of $1,000 or more, including grants of $300,000 and $545,000 from Cisco Systems Foundation; $500,000 from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and one $466,000 grant and two $545,000 grants from the Picower Foundation.

Other funders of the SPLC include: the Arcus Foundation; the Baltimore Community Foundation; the Beneficia Foundation; the Boston Foundation; the  Caplan Charity Foundation; the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan; the Community Foundation (Silicon Valley); the Cushman Family Foundation; the Dibner Fund; the Falcon Charitable Foundation; the Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundation; the Feldman Foundation; the Fuchsberg Family Foundation; the Gardner Foundation; the Edward and Verna Gerbic Family Foundation; the Gilo Family Foundation; the Jackson and Irene Golden 1989 Charitable Trust; the Grove Foundation; the John S. Hilson Family Fund; the Handleman Charitable Foundation Trust; the J.M. Kaplan Fund; the Kaplen Foundation; the Marble Fund; the Morgan Chase Foundation; the New York Community Trust; the Peninsula Community Foundation; the Louis and Harold Price Foundation; the St. Paul Foundation; the Raine and Stanley Silverstein Family Foundation; the Spiegel Foundation; the Mike and Corky Hale Stoller Foundation; the Wasserman Foundation; the Willow Springs Foundation; and the Jim and Elaine Wolf Foundation.

The SPLC’s attempts to parry criticism that its operations amount to a fundraising racket have served only to fuel it. Morris Dees raised eyebrows in the 1990s when he told an interviewer, “I learned everything I know about hustling from the Baptist Church. Spending Sundays on those hard benches listening to the preacher pitch salvation – why, it was like getting a Ph.D. in selling.”

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