A co-founder, with Morris Dees and Julian Bond, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Joseph Levin stepped down as the SPLC’s chief executive officer in November 2003, becoming the controversial law firm’s president emeritus. He also served variously as SPLC’s legal director, chairman of the board, president, and general counsel before retiring in 2016. Though Levin has never courted the public spotlight as assiduously as his colleague Morris Dees, he too has assembled a career as a prominent leftwing lawyer-activist.
Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1943, Levin has stated that he was moved to champion the cause of civil rights by the example of one of his fraternity brothers at the University of Alabama in the 1960s. “Prior to that time, I saw myself as a white Southerner,” Levin has said. “I had not experienced that kind of naked hatred. Once my eyes were opened, I couldn’t ignore others who were persecuted around me.” At that juncture, Levin launched his career as an activist-lawyer, co-founding the SPLC in 1971. In 1976 Levin took a leave of absence from the SPLC to serve as a supervisor on President Jimmy Carter’s Justice Department transition team; moreover, he later served as special assistant to Attorney General Griffin Bell, and as chief counsel to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Following President Carter’s failed re-election bid in 1980, Levin started a private law practice in Washington, D.C.
When Levin returned to the SPLC in 1996 to act as its CEO, he found the organization beset by controversy. His term failed to dispel charges that the organization had strayed from its original commitment to civil rights. On the contrary, Levin’s response to some of the criticism leveled against the SPLC served only to fortify the impression that the Center had been corrupted by the hubris and avarice of its top leadership.
One such instance occurred in 2001, after Harper’s magazine published an article critical of the SPLC. Rather than dispassionately rejoining the article’s charges, however, Levin fired off an ad hominem attack against the author, Ken Silverstein, in a letter to the editor. He questioned Silverstein’s “journalistic integrity” and asserted, without any credible evidence, that the leftwing journalist had a “financial interest” in being critical of the SPLC. Levin then proceeded to denounce Silverstein’s amply substantiated charge – that the SPLC habitually exaggerated the influence of hate groups for pecuniary gain – as a contemptible defense of white supremacists. “Perhaps Silverstein’s apologies for white supremacists are illustrative of the old adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’” Levin sneered. Levin’s intemperate reply was reminiscent of the SPLC’s longtime strategy, drawn up by Levin and Morris Dees, of tagging as “hate groups” those organizations that part ways with the SPLC’s leftwing worldview.