The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an American nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, it is noted for its successful legal cases against white supremacistgroups, its classification of hate groups and other extremist organizations, and its educational programs that promote tolerance.The SPLC’s classification and listing of hate groups—organizations that, in its assessment, “attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics”and its labeling of certain people as extremists have been the source of some controversy.
SPLC was founded by Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. in 1971 as a civil rights law firm in Montgomery. Civil rights leader Julian Bond served as president of the board between 1971 and 1979.
In 1979, the SPLC began a litigation strategy of filing civil suits for monetary damages on behalf of the victims of violence from the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, with all damages recovered given to the victims or donated to other organizations. The SPLC also became involved in other civil rights causes, including cases to challenge what it sees as institutional racial segregation and discrimination, inhumane and unconstitutional conditions in prisons and detention centers, discrimination based on sexual orientation, mistreatment of illegal immigrants, and the unconstitutional mixing of church and state. The SPLC has provided information about hate groups to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. in 1971 as a law firm originally focused on issues such as fighting poverty, racial discrimination and the death penalty in the United States. The SPLC’s first president was Julian Bond, who served until 1979 and then remained on the board of directors until his death in 2015. In 1979, Dees and the SPLC began filing civil lawsuits against Ku Klux Klan chapters and similar organizations for monetary damages on behalf of their victims; the favorable verdicts from these suits served to bankrupt the KKK and other targeted organizations In 1981, the Center began its Klanwatch project to monitor the activities of the KKK. That project, now called Hatewatch, was later expanded to include seven other types of hate organizations.
In 1986, the entire legal staff of the SPLC, excluding Dees, resigned as the organization shifted from traditional civil rights work toward fighting right-wing extremism. In 1989, the Center unveiled its Civil Rights Memorial, which was designed by Maya Lin. The Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” project was initiated in 1991. In 2008, the SPLC and Dees were featured on National Geographic‘s Inside American Terror explaining their litigation strategy against the Ku Klux Klan.
Criminal attacks and plots against the SPLC
In July 1983, the SPLC headquarters was firebombed, destroying the building and records. As a result of the arson, Klansmen Joe M. Garner and Roy T. Downs Jr., along with Klan sympathizer Charles Bailey, pleaded guilty in February 1985 to conspiring to intimidate, oppress and threaten members of black organizations represented by SPLC. The SPLC built a new headquarters building from 1999 to 2001.
In 1984, Dees became an assassination target of The Order, a revolutionary white supremacist group. By 2007, according to Dees, more than 30 people had been jailed in connection with plots to kill him or to blow up SPLC offices.
In 1995, four men were indicted for planning to blow up the SPLC. In May 1998, three white supremacists were arrested for allegedly planning a nationwide campaign of assassinations and bombings targeting “Morris Dees, an undisclosed federal judge in Illinois, a black radio show host in Missouri, Dees’s Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and the Anti-Defamation League in New York.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has initiated a number of civil cases seeking injunctive relief and monetary awards on behalf of its clients. The SPLC has said it does not accept any portion of monetary judgements. Dees and the SPLC “have been credited with devising innovative legal ways to cripple hate groups, including seizing their assets.”However, this has led to criticism from some civil libertarians, who contend that the SPLC’s tactics chill free speech and set legal precedents that could be applied against activist groups which are not hate groups. The SPLC has also filed suits related to the conditions of incarceration for adults and juveniles.
An early SPLC case was Sims v. Amos (consolidated with Nixon v. Brewer) in which a Federal District Court in Alabama ordered the state legislature to reapportion its election system. The result of the decision, which was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, was that 15 black legislators were elected in 1974.
In 1981, the SPLC took Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam’s Klan-associated militia, the Texas Emergency Reserve (TER), to court to stop racial harassment and intimidation of Vietnamese shrimpers in and around Galveston Bay. The Klan’s actions against approximately 100 Vietnamese shrimpers in the area included a cross burning, sniper fire aimed at them, and arsonists burning their boats.
In May 1981, U.S. District Court judge Gabrielle McDonald issued a preliminary injunction against the Klan, requiring them to cease intimidating, threatening, or harassing the Vietnamese. McDonald eventually found the TER and Beam liable for tortious interference, violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and of various civil rights statutes and thus permanently enjoined them against violence, threatening behavior, and other harassment of the Vietnamese shrimpers. The SPLC also uncovered an obscure Texas law “that forbade private armies in that state.”McDonald found that Beam’s organization violated it and hence ordered the TER to close its military training camp.
White Patriot Party
In 1982, armed members of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Bobby Person, a black prison guard, and members of his family. They harassed and threatened others, including a white woman who had befriended blacks. In 1984, Person became the lead plaintiff in Person v. Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a lawsuit brought by the SPLC in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The harassment and threats continued during litigation and the court issued an order prohibiting any person from interfering with others inside the courthouse. In January 1985, the court issued a consent order that prohibited the group’s “Grand Dragon”, Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., and his followers from operating a paramilitary organization, holding parades in black neighborhoods, and from harassing, threatening or harming any black person or white persons who associated with black persons. Subsequently, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim for damages.
Within a year, the court found Miller and his followers, now calling themselves the White Patriot Party, in criminal contempt for violating the consent order. Miller was sentenced to six months in prison followed by a three-year probationary period, during which he was banned from associating with members of any racist group such as the White Patriot Party. Miller refused to obey the terms of his probation. He made underground “declarations of war” against Jews and the federal government before being arrested again. Found guilty of weapons violations, he went to federal prison for three years.
United Klans of America
In 1987, SPLC won a case against the United Klans of America for the lynching of Michael Donald, a black teenager in Mobile, Alabama. The SPLC used an unprecedented legal strategy of holding an organization responsible for the crimes of individual members to help produce a $7 million judgement for the victim’s mother. The verdict forced United Klans of America into bankruptcy. Its national headquarters was sold for approximately $52,000 to help satisfy the judgement. In 1987, five members of a Klan offshoot, the White Patriot Party, were indicted for stealing military weaponry and plotting to kill Dees. The SPLC has since successfully used this precedent to force numerous Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups into bankruptcy.
White Aryan Resistance
On November 13, 1988, in Portland, Oregon, three white supremacist members of East Side White Pride and White Aryan Resistance (WAR) fatally assaulted Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian man who came to the United States to attend college. In October 1990, the SPLC won a civil case on behalf of Seraw’s family against WAR’s operator Tom Metzger and his son, John, for a total of $12.5 million. The Metzgers declared bankruptcy, and WAR went out of business. The cost of work for the trial was absorbed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as well as the SPLC. As of August 2007, Metzger still makes payments to Seraw’s family.
Church of the Creator
In May 1991, Harold Mansfield, a black U.S. Navy war veteran, was murdered by George Loeb, a member of the neo-Nazi “Church of the Creator” (now called the Creativity Movement). SPLC represented the victim’s family in a civil case and won a judgement of $1 million from the church in March 1994. The church transferred ownership to William Pierce, head of the National Alliance, to avoid paying money to Mansfield’s heirs. The SPLC filed suit against Pierce for his role in the fraudulent scheme and won an $85,000 judgement against him in 1995. The amount was upheld on appeal and the money was collected prior to Pierce’s death in 2002.
Christian Knights of the KKK
The SPLC won a $37.8 million verdict on behalf of Macedonia Baptist Church, a 100-year-old black church in Manning, South Carolina, against two Ku Klux Klan chapters and five Klansmen (Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Invisible Empire, Inc.) in July 1998. The money was awarded stemming from arson convictions; these Klan units burned down the historic black church in 1995. Morris Dees told the press, “If we put the Christian Knights out of business, what’s that worth? We don’t look at what we can collect. It’s what the jury thinks this egregious conduct is worth that matters, along with the message it sends.” According to The Washington Post the amount is the “largest-ever civil award for damages in a hate crime case.”
In September 2000, the SPLC won a $6.3 million judgement against the Aryan Nations (AN) from an Idaho jury who awarded punitive and compensatory damages to a woman and her son who were attacked by Aryan Nations guards. The lawsuit stemmed from the July 1998 attack when security guards at the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake in northern Idaho, shot at Victoria Keenan and her son. Bullets struck their car several times, causing the car to crash. An Aryan Nations member held the Keenans at gunpoint. As a result of the judgement, Richard Butler turned over the 20-acre (81,000 m2) compound to the Keenans, who sold the property to a philanthropist. He donated the land to North Idaho College, which designated the area as a “peace park”. Because of the lawsuit, members of the AN drew up a plan to kill Dees, which was disrupted by the FBI.
Ten Commandments monument
In 2002, the SPLC and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit (Glassroth v. Moore) against Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore for placing a display of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. Moore, who had final authority over what decorations were to be placed in the Alabama State Judicial Building’s Rotunda, had installed a 5,280 pound (2400 kg) granite block, three feet wide by three feet deep by four feet tall, of the Ten Commandments late at night without the knowledge of any other court justice. After defying several court rulings, Moore was eventually removed from the court and the Supreme Court justices had the monument removed from the building.
On March 18, 2003, two illegal immigrants from El Salvador, Edwin Alfredo Mancía Gonzáles and Fátima del Socorro Leiva Medina, were trespassing through a Texas ranch owned by Joseph Sutton. They were accosted by vigilantes known as Ranch Rescue, who were recruited by Sutton to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border region nearby. Mancía, Leiva, and the SPLC alleged that members of Ranch Rescue held the two migrants at gunpoint, threatened them with death, and otherwise terrorized them; they also alleged that Mancía was struck on the back of the head with a handgun and that a Rottweiler dog was allowed to attack him. Mancía and Leiva also stated that the vigilantes gave them water, cookies and a blanket before letting them go after about an hour.
Later that year, SPLC, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and local attorneys filed a civil suit, Leiva v. Ranch Rescue, in Jim Hogg County, Texas, against Ranch Rescue and several of its associates, seeking damages for assault and illegal detention. In April 2005, SPLC obtained judgements totaling $1 million against Ranch Rescue member Casey James Nethercott and Ranch Rescue’s leader, Torre John Foote. Those awards came six months after a $350,000 judgement in the same case and coincided with a $100,000 out-of-court settlement with Sutton. Nethercott’s 70-acre (280,000 m2) Arizona property, which was Ranch Rescue’s headquarters, was seized to pay the judgement. Nethercott was also charged by Texas prosecutors of pistol-whipping Mancía (which Nethercott denied). A jury deadlocked on the pistol-whipping charge but convicted Nethercott of being a felon in possession of a firearm (as he had a prior assault conviction in California). SPLC staff worked with Texas prosecutors to obtain Nethercott’s conviction.
Billy Ray Johnson
The SPLC brought a civil suit on behalf of Billy Ray Johnson, a black, mentally disabled man, who was severely beaten by four white males in Texas and left bleeding in a ditch, suffering permanent injuries. In 2007, Johnson was awarded $9 million in damages by a Linden, Texas jury. At a criminal trial, the four men were convicted of assault and received sentences of 30 to 60 days in county jail.
Imperial Klans of America
In November 2008, the SPLC’s case against the Imperial Klans of America (IKA), the nation’s second-largest Klan organization, went to trial in Meade County, Kentucky. The SPLC had filed suit for damages in July 2007 on behalf of Jordan Gruver and his mother against the IKA in Kentucky. In July 2006, five Klan members went to the Meade County Fairgrounds in Brandenburg, Kentucky, “to hand out business cards and flyers advertising a ‘white-only’ IKA function”. Two members of the Klan started calling Gruver, a 16-year-old boy of Panamanian descent, a “spic”. Subsequently, the boy, (5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m) and weighing 150 pounds (68 kg)) was beaten and kicked by the Klansmen (one of whom was 6 feet 5 inches (1.96 m) and 300 pounds (140 kg)). As a result, the victim received “two cracked ribs, a broken left forearm, multiple cuts and bruises and jaw injuries requiring extensive dental repair.”
In a related criminal case in February 2007, Jarred Hensley and Andrew Watkins were sentenced to three years in prison for beating Gruver. On November 14, 2008, an all-white jury of seven men and seven women awarded $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages to the plaintiff against Ron Edwards, Imperial Wizard of the group, and Jarred Hensley, who participated in the attack.
Mississippi correctional institutions
Together with the ACLU National Prison Project, the SPLC filed a class-action suit in November 2010 against the owner/operators of the private Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Leake County, Mississippi, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDC). They charged that conditions, including under-staffing and neglect of medical care, produced numerous and repeated abuses of youthful prisoners, high rates of violence and injury, and that one prisoner suffered brain damage because of inmate-on-inmate attacks. A federal civil rights investigation was undertaken by the United States Department of Justice. In settling the suit, Mississippi ended its contract with GEO Group in 2012. Additionally, under the court decree, the MDC moved the youthful offenders to state-run units. In 2012, Mississippi opened a new youthful offender unit at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County. The state also agreed to not subject youthful offenders to solitary confinement and a court monitor conducted regular reviews of conditions at the facility.
Also with the ACLU Prison Project, the SPLC filed a class-action suit in May 2013 against Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the for-profit operator of the private East Mississippi Correctional Facility, and the MDC. Management and Training Corporation had been awarded a contract for this and two other facilities in Mississippi in 2012 following the removal of GEO Group. The suit charged failure of MTC to make needed improvements, and to maintain proper conditions and treatment for this special needs population of prisoners. In 2015 the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.
Polk County Florida Sheriff
In 2012, the SPLC initiated a class action federal lawsuit against the Polk County, Florida sheriff, Grady Judd, alleging that seven juveniles confined by the sheriff were suffering in improper conditions. U.S. District Court Judge Steven D. Merryday found in favor of Judd, who said the SPLC’s allegations “were not supported by the facts or court precedence [sic].” The judge wrote that “the conditions of juvenile detention at (Central County Jail) are not consistent with (Southern Poverty’s) dark, grim, and condemning portrayal.” While the county sheriff’s department did not recover an estimated $1 million in attorney’s fees defending the case, Judge Merryday did award $103,000 in court costs to Polk County.
Andrew Anglin and The Daily Stormer
In April 2017, the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Tanya Gersh, accusing Andrew Anglin, publisher of the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, of instigating an anti-Semitic harassment campaign against Gersh, a Whitefish, Montana, real estate agent.
SPLC’s projects include the website Tolerance.org, which provides news on tolerance issues, education for children, guidebooks for activists, and resources for parents and teachers. The website received Webby Awards in 2002 and 2004 for Best Activism. Another product of Tolerance.org is the “10 Ways To Fight Hate on Campus: A Response Guide for College Activists” booklet.
The SPLC also produces documentary films. Two have won Academy Awards for Documentary Short Subject: A Time for Justice (1994) and Mighty Times: The Children’s March (2004). In 2017 the SPLC began developing a 6-part series with Black Box Management to document “the normalization of far-right extremism in the age of Donald Trump.”
Cooperation with law enforcement
The SPLC cooperates with, and offers training to, law enforcement agencies, focusing “on the history, background, leaders, and activities of far-right extremists in the United States”. The FBI has partnered with the SPLC and many other organizations “to establish rapport, share information, address concerns, and cooperate in solving problems” related to hate crimes.
Tracking of hate groups and extremists
Hate group and extremist designations
The SPLC is the organization most widely associated with tracking hate groups in the United States. It maintains lists of hate groups, which they define as groups that “… have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics”. It says that hate group activities may include speeches, marches, rallies, meetings, publishing, leafleting, and criminal acts such as violence. (Not all groups so listed by the SPLC engage in criminal activity.) The process for determining which groups are included involves “talking through” cases that are not clear-cut.
Since 1981, the SPLC’s Intelligence Project has published a quarterly Intelligence Report that monitors what the SPLC considers radical right hate groups and extremists in the United States. The Intelligence Reportprovides information regarding organizational efforts and tactics of these groups and persons, and has been cited by scholars as a reliable and comprehensive source on U.S. right-wing extremism and hate groups. The SPLC also publishes HateWatch Weekly, a newsletter that follows racism and extremism, and the Hatewatch blog, whose subtitle is “Keeping an Eye on the Radical Right”.
Two articles published in Intelligence Report have won “Green Eyeshade Excellence in Journalism” awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. “Communing with the Council”, written by Heidi Beirich and Bob Moser, took third place for Investigative Journalism in the Magazine Division in 2004, and “Southern Gothic”, by David Holthouse and Casey Sanchez, took second place for Feature Reporting in the Magazine Division in 2007.
Year in Hate and Extremism
Since 2001, the SPLC has released an annual issue of the Intelligence Project called Year in Hate, later renamed Year in Hate and Extremism, in which they present statistics on the numbers of hate groups in America. The current format of the report covers racial hate groups, nativist hate groups, and other right-wing extremist groups such as groups within the Patriot Movement. Jesse Walker, writing in Reason.com, criticized the 2016 report, questioning whether the count was reliable, as it focused on the number of groups rather than the number of people in those groups or the size of the groups. Walker gives the example that the 2016 report itself concedes an increase in the number of KKK groups could be due to two large groups falling apart, leading to members creating smaller local groups.
In their study of the white separatist movement in the United States, sociologists Betty A. Dobratz and Stephanie L. Shanks-Meile referred to the SPLC’s Klanwatch Intelligence Reports in saying “we relied on the SPLC and ADL for general information, but we have noted differences between the way events have been reported and what we saw at rallies. For instance, events were sometimes portrayed in Klanwatch Intelligence Reports as more militant and dangerous with higher turnouts than we observed.”
In 2013, J.M. Berger wrote in Foreign Policy that media organizations should be more cautious when citing the SPLC and ADL, arguing that they are “not objective purveyors of data”.
Controversy over hate group and extremist listings
The SPLC’s identification and listings of hate groups and extremists has been the subject of controversy. Critics of the SPLC say that it chooses its causes with funding and donations in mind, and argue that people and groups designated as ‘hate groups’ are often targeted by protests that prevent them from speaking. The SPLC sometimes responds by reviewing its actions and removing people or organizations from hate listings, such as that of Ben Carson; however, it has stood behind the vast majority of its listings.
- Analyst of political fringe movements Laird Wilcox has said the SPLC had taken an incautious approach to assigning the labels “hate group” and “extremist”. Mark Potok of Southern Poverty Law Center said Wilcox “had an ax to grind for a great many years” and engaged in name calling against others doing anti-racist work.
- In 2009, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) argued that allies of America’s Voice and Media Matters had used the SPLC designation of FAIR as a hate group to “engage in unsubstantiated, invidious name-calling, smearing millions of people in this movement.” FAIR and its leadership have been criticized by the SPLC as being sympathetic to, or overtly supportive of, white supremacist and identitarian ideologies, as the group’s founder has stated his goal as ensuring that the United States remains a majority-white country.
- In 2010, a group of Republican politicians and conservative organizations criticized the SPLC in full-page advertisements in two Washington, D. C., newspapers for what they described as “character assassination” because the SPLC had listed the Family Research Council (FRC) as a hate group due to its “defaming of gays and lesbians”. In the wake of the August 2012 shooting at the headquarters of the FRC, in which a security guard was wounded, some columnists also criticized the SPLC’s listing of the FRC as an anti-gay hate group, while others defended the categorization. The SPLC defended its listing of anti-gay hate groups, stating that the groups were selected not because of their religious views, but on their “propagation of known falsehoods about LGBT people… that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities…”
- In October 2014, the SPLC added Ben Carson to its extremist watch list, citing his association with groups it considers extreme, and his “linking of gays with pedophiles”. Following criticism, the SPLC concluded its profile of Carson did not meet its standards, removed his listing, and apologized to him in February 2015.
- In October 2016, the SPLC published a list of “anti-Muslim extremists”, including British activist Maajid Nawaz and ex-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The SPLC said that Nawaz appeared to be “more interested in self-promotion and money than in any particular ideological dispute”, identified what it said were gaps and inconsistencies in his backstory, and rebuked his claim that British universities had been infiltrated by radical Islamists. Nawaz, who identifies as a “liberal, reform Muslim”, denounced the listing as a “smear”, saying that the SPLC listing had made him a target of jihadists. Mark Potok of the SPLC responded, “Our point is not to make these people targets for violence… The point is to tamp down the really baseless targeting.” The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice has written a public letter to the SPLC to retract the listings.
The SPLC’s activities, including litigation, are supported by fundraising efforts, and it does not accept any fees or share in legal judgements awarded to clients it represents in court. Starting in 1974, the SPLC set aside money for its endowment stating that it was “convinced that the day [would] come when non-profit groups [would] no longer be able to rely on support through mail because of posting and printing costs”. For 2016, its endowment was approximately $319 million per its annual report and SPLC spent 68% of its revenue on programs.
In 1994 the Montgomery Advertiser published an eight-part critical report on the SPLC, saying that it exaggerated the threat posed by the Klan and similar groups in order to raise money, discriminated against black employees, and used misleading fundraising tactics. The SPLC dismissed the series as a “hatchet job”. SPLC’s co-founder Joe Levin stated: “The Advertiser’s lack of interest in the center’s programs and its obsessive interest in the center’s financial affairs and Mr. Dees’ personal life makes it obvious to me that the Advertisersimply wants to smear the center and Mr. Dees.” The series was nominated for but did not win a 1995 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism. Despite an SPLC campaign against the nomination the series was one of three finalists.
Starting in the 1990s, Ken Silverstein writing in Harper’s Magazine and others were critical of the SPLC’s fundraising appeals and finances, alleging that the group has used hyperbole and overstated the prevalence of hate groups to raise large amounts of money.
Based on 2015 figures, Charity Navigator rated the SPLC three out of four stars – 80.44 on financial health matters, 97.00 on accountability and transparency, and 86.00 (out of 100) overall; and GuideStar gives the SPLC a Gold-level rating.