December 15, 2011

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Founded in 1971 by a pair of Alabama lawyers, Morris Dees and Joe Levin, the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) 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 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, 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' actions, 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."

As part of the Intelligence Project, the SPLC website currently features a map of "Active U.S. Hate Groups." Deeming racism the the nearly exclusive province of  the "radical right," Intelligence Project reports mostly ignore groups on the left. And although SPLC denounces extremist religious organizations like the Jewish Defense League and Westboro Baptist Church, no mention is made of any extremist Muslim groups. (In 2007, SPLC identified 888 separate "active hate groups" in the United States.)

In a 2003 article titled "Into the Mainstream," featured in SPLC's quarterly magazine Intelligence Report, author Chip Berlet asserted that "right-wing foundations and think tanks support efforts to make bigoted and discredited ideas respectable."

According to SPLC, white bigotry aimed at racial and ethnic minorities has not diminished at all in recent decades. The Center states, for instance, "Like most of the southeastern U.S., Georgia has seen an explosion in Hispanic immigration in recent years. … As hate groups exploit the racial tension stemming from the area's growth, locals have launched violent attacks against immigrant workers." In May 2006, SPLC characterized the critics of pro-open borders rallies (held in several U.S. cities) as "anti-immigration extremists."

In 1991 SPLC established a "Teaching Tolerance" educational program "to help K-12 teachers foster respect and understanding in the classroom." One recent Teaching Tolerance campaign urged students to oppose the use of Native American mascots among sports teams by taking up a letter-writing campaign to owners and players of professional squads, high-school and middle-school principals, school board members, university trustees, university coaches, and the editor of a local newspaper.

Highlights of such campaigns are featured in SPLC's biannual in-house publication, Teaching Tolerance magazine, which has 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 pupils "are students of color," one recent article cited this fact as evidence of "a legacy of racial domination and injustice" in the teacher-hiring process. A corollary to the Teaching Tolerance initiative is another SPLC website, Created in 2001, this site "offers a wide variety of resources to support anti-bias activism."

In 1992, SPLC asserted that some 346 white-supremacist organizations were operating in the United States. Even leftist journalist Alexander Cockburn accused SPLC's Morris Dees of raising funds by "frightening elderly liberals that the heirs of Adolf Hitler are about to march down Main Street." Ethical questions about SPLC's tactics were also raised by Harper's Magazine, which took issue with the organization's wont for suing groups for the crimes committed by its individual members, "a practice that, however seemingly justified, should give civil libertarians pause."

In 1996, USA Today called SPLC, with its $68 million in assets, "the nation's richest civil rights organization." By the end of fiscal year 2003, SPLC's endowment totaled $120.6 million. 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."

In 1995, Alabama's Montgomery Advertiser published a series of investigative reports that raised serious questions about SPLC's finances. In one instance mentioned by the paper, SPLC won a celebrated $7 million settlement after suing a Ku Klux Klan organization in Alabama. The Klan was without assets and the SPLC client received very little from the suit. By contrast, SPLC directors -- having garnered $9 million in donations in a two-year fundraising campaign for the trial -- afforded themselves salaries of $350,000 for the trial's duration.

A 1998 survey conducted by the nonpartisan publication National Journal showed that Morris Dees earned tens of thousands of dollars more each year than the officers of 78 other selected advocacy groups, including the heads of such prominent organizations as the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Children's Defense Fund. After SPLC took in more than $44 million in revenues in 1999, The Nation magazine lambasted the Center for spending nearly $6 million on fundraising activities but only $2.4 million on litigation.

Between 2001 and 2004, SPLC was the recipient of 59 foundation grants totaling $3,326,425. The donors included: the Arcus Foundation; the Baltimore Community Foundation; the Cisco Systems Foundation; the Cleveland Foundation, the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation; the Columbus Foundation and Affiliated Organizations; the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan; the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region; Community Foundation (Silicon Valley); the Cushman Family Foundation; the Dibner Fund; the Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the Edward and Verna Gerbic Family Foundation; the Jackson and Irene Golden 1989 Charitable Trust; the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund; the Grove Foundation; the J.M. Kaplan Fund; the J.P Morgan Chase Foundation; the Kaplen Foundation; the Open Society Institute; the Albert Parvin Foundation; the Picower Foundation; the Jay Pritzker Foundation; the Louis and Harold Price Foundation; the Public Welfare Foundation; the Raine and Stanley Silverstein Family Foundation; the Spiegel Foundation; the State Street Foundation; the Steinberg Charitable Trust; and the Vanguard Public Foundation.


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