Southern Poverty Law Center
Joseph R. Levin, Jr.
|Type||Public-interest law firm
Civil rights advocacy organization
|Headquarters||Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.|
|Key people||J. Richard Cohen, President|
|Area served||United States|
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an American nonprofit civil rights organization noted for its legal victories against white supremacist groups, its legal representation for victims of hate groups, its monitoring of alleged hate groups, militias and extremist organizations, and its educational programs that promote tolerance. The SPLC classifies and lists as hate groups organizations that in its opinion denigrate or assault entire groups of people, typically for attributes that are beyond their control.
In 1971, Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. founded the SPLC as a civil rights law firm based in Montgomery, Alabama. Civil rights leader Julian Bond soon joined Dees and Levin and served as president of the board between 1971 and 1979. The SPLC's litigating strategy involves filing civil suits for damages on behalf of the victims of hate group harassment, threats, and violence with the goal of financially depleting the responsible groups and individuals. While it originally focused on damages done by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, throughout the years the SPLC has become involved in other civil rights causes, among them, cases concerned with institutional racial segregation and discrimination, the mistreatment of aliens, and the separation of church and state. Along with civil rights organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the SPLC provides information about hate groups to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The SPLC does not accept government funds, nor does it charge its clients legal fees or share in their court-awarded judgments. Most of its funds come from direct mail campaigns which have helped it to build substantial monetary reserves. Its fundraising appeals and accumulation of reserves have been the subject of some criticism, as have its hate group listings.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. in 1971 as a law firm to handle anti-discrimination cases in the United States. SPLC's first president was Julian Bond, who served as president until 1979 and remains on its board of directors. In 1979, the Center brought the first of its many cases against various Ku Klux Klan type organizations. In 1981, the Center began its Klanwatch project to monitor the activities of the KKK. That project, now called Hatewatch, has been expanded to include seven other types of hate organizations.
In July 1983, the center's office was firebombed, destroying the building and records. In February 1985 Klan members and a Klan sympathizer pleaded guilty to federal and state charges related to the fire. At the trial Klansmen Joe M. Garner and Roy T. Downs Jr. along with Charles Bailey pleaded guilty to conspiring to intimidate, oppress and threaten members of black organizations represented by SPLC." According to Dees over 30 people have been jailed in connection with plots to kill him or blow up the center.
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 judgment 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 judgment. In 1987, five members of a Klan offshoot, the White Patriot Party, were indicted for stealing military weaponry and plotting to kill Dees.
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, and its "Klanwatch" program has gradually expanded to include other anti-hate monitoring projects and a list of reported hate groups in the United States.
In October 1990, the SPLC won $12.5 million in damages against Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance when a Portland, Oregon, jury held the neo-Nazi group liable in the beating death of an Ethiopian immigrant. While Metzger lost his home and ability to publish material, the full amount of the multi-million dollar reward was not recovered. In 1995, a group of four white males 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 SPLC has been criticized for using hyperbole and overstating the prevalence of hate groups to raise large amounts of money. In a 2000 Harper's Magazine magazine article, Ken Silverstein said that Dees has kept the SPLC focused on fighting anti-minority groups like the KKK, whose membership has declined to just 2,000, instead of on issues like homelessness, mostly because of the former issue makes for more lucrative fundraising. The article also claimed that the SPLC "spends twice as much on fund-raising--$5.76 million last year--as it does on legal services for victims of civil rights abuses." Harper's also pointed out that more than 95% of hate crimes are committed by lone wolves without any connection to militia groups the SPLC speaks of.
In July 2007, the SPLC filed suit against the Imperial Klans of America (IKA) in Meade County, where in July 2006 five Klansmen allegedly beat Jordan Gruver, a 16-year-old boy of Panamanian descent, at a Kentucky county fair. After filing the suit, the SPLC received nearly a dozen threats. During the November 2008 civil trial, a former member of the IKA said that the Klan head told him to kill Dees.
Notable cases 
The Southern Poverty Law Center has won many notable civil cases resulting in monetary awards for the plaintiffs. The SPLC has said it does not accept any portion of monetary judgments. Dees and the SPLC "have been credited with devising innovative legal ways to cripple hate groups, including seizing their assets."
Young Men's Christian Association 
The first SPLC case was filed by Dees against the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in Montgomery, Alabama because it "continued to segregate children, going so far as to ban kids who swam at an integrated pool from city-wide meets." In 1969, the YMCA refused to allow two black children to its summer camp, and the SPLC sued on behalf of the children's parents. In the course of the lawsuit, Dees uncovered a secret 1958 agreement between the city and the YMCA, in which city officials gave the YMCA control of many city recreational activities. In 1971 SPLC assumed responsibility for the case. In 1972 the court ruled that Montgomery had given the YMCA control "with a municipal character," and "ordered the YMCA to stop its discriminatory, segregationist practices." Years later, the executive director of the Montgomery YMCA thanked Dees for the case because without it, the center would not have been able to desegregate.
Vietnamese fishermen 
In 1981, the SPLC took the Ku Klux Klan to court to stop racial harassment and intimidation of Vietnamese fishermen in and around Galveston Bay. In May 1981, the courts sided with the Vietnamese fishermen and the SPLC, forcing the Klan to end harassment.
Staff salaries 
In 1981, the SPLC won a case filed to force Bullock County, Alabama to pay salaries to the staff of its first black probate judge. Alabama state law at the time required probate judges to pay for their own staff, but Bullock County, in violation of this law, paid the salaries of the staff of its white probate judges.
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 other persons inside the courthouse.
In January 1985, the court issued a consent order that prohibited the group's "Grand Dragon," Glenn Miller, and his followers from operating a paramilitary organization, parading 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 plaintiff's 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, the SPLC successfully brought a civil case against the United Klans of America (UKA) for the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama by two of the UKA's members. Unable to come up with the $7 million awarded by the jury, the UKA was forced to turn over its national headquarters to Donald's mother, who then sold it and used the money to purchase her first house.
White Aryan Resistance 
On November 13, 1988, in Portland, Oregon, three white supremacist members of East Side White Pride and White Aryan Resistance (WAR) beat Mulugeta Seraw to death. Seraw was an Ethiopian man who came to the United States to attend college. In October 1990, the SPLC won a civil case on behalf of the Seraw's family against WAR's operator Tom Metzger and his son, John Metzger, 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 as well as the SPLC. Metzger still makes payments to Seraw's family.
Church of the Creator 
In May 1991, Harold Mansfield Jr, a black war veteran in the United States Navy, was murdered by 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 money being paid to Mansfield's heirs. The SPLC filed suit against Pierce for his role in the fraudulent scheme and won an $85,000 judgment 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 for 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 in which the Klan 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."
Aryan Nations 
In September 2000, the SPLC won a $6.3 million judgment against the Aryan Nations 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 in Idaho shot at Victoria Keenan and her son. Bullets struck their car several times then the car crashed and 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 then sold the property to a philanthropist who subsequently donated it to North Idaho College, which designated the land 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 against Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore for authorizing a two-ton display of the Ten Commandments on public property. Moore, late at night and without telling any other court justice, 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. After defying several court rulings, Moore was eventually removed from the court, and the monument was removed as well.
Ranch rescue 
On March 18, 2003, two illegal aliens 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.
According to the SPLC, Gonzáles and Medina were held at gunpoint, and Gonzáles was struck on the back of the head with a handgun, and a rottweiler was allowed to attack him. The SPLC said Gonzáles and Medina were threatened with death and otherwise terrorized before being released. The El Salvadorans stated that the ranchers gave them water, cookies and a blanket before letting them go after about an hour. Ranch Rescuer Casey James Nethercott denied hitting either of the trespassers with a gun, and none of the vigilantes were convicted of pistol-whipping.
In 2003, 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 judgments totaling $1 million against Nethercott and Torre John Foote, Ranch Rescue's leader. Those awards came six months after a $350,000 judgment 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 judgment. Nethercott, previously convicted of assault in California, was sentenced to five years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm. SPLC staff worked closely with Texas prosecutors to obtain that conviction.
Billy Ray Johnson 
Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled man, was taken by four white males to a party where he was knocked unconscious then dropped on his head, referred to as a "nigger", and left in a ditch bleeding. Due to the event, "Johnson, 46, who suffered serious, permanent brain injuries from the attack, will require care for the rest of his life." At a criminal trial the four men received sentences of 30 to 60 days in county jail. On April 20, 2007, Billy Ray Johnson was awarded $9 million in damages by a civil jury in Linden, Texas. The jury hoped that the verdict would improve race relations in the community stemming from a United States Department of Education investigation and other controversial verdicts. During the trial one of the defendants, Cory Hicks, referred to Johnson as "it."
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, began in Meade County, Kentucky. The SPLC filed suit in July 2007 on behalf of Jordan Gruver and his mother against the IKA in Kentucky where in July 2006, five Klansmen savagely beat Gruver at a Kentucky county fair. According to the lawsuit, 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 the 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 had been 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. The two other defendants, Andrew Watkins and Joshua Cowles, previously agreed to confidential settlements and were dropped from the suit.
Opposition to Arizona illegal immigration measure 
The SPLC has spoken against Arizona SB 1070, the anti-illegal immigration measure passed by the state of Arizona in 2010, calling it "brazenly unconstitutional" and "a civil rights disaster". In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the case, Arizona v. United States, upholding the provision requiring immigration status checks during law enforcement stops but striking down three other provisions as violations of the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.
The SPLC's initiatives include the website Tolerance.org, past winner of the international Webby Award. The site provides daily news on tolerance issues, educational games for children, guidebooks for activists, and resources for parents and teachers.[dead link]
The site's Teaching Tolerance initiative is aimed at two different age groups of students with separate materials for teachers and parents. One portion of the project targets elementary school children, providing material on the history of the civil rights movement.[dead link] The center's material for elementary school children includes a publication entitled "A fresh look at multicultural 'American English'" which explores the cultural history of common words. A project website includes an interactive program addressing such topics as Native American school mascots, displays of the Confederate flag, and the themes of popular music and entertainment, encouraging pupils to consider racial, gender, and sexual orientation sensitivities.
A similar program aimed at middle and high school pupils includes a "Mix it Up" project urging readers to participate in school activities involving interaction between different social groups. Other features of this project includes political activism tips and reports highlighting student activism. The SPLC puts out a monthly publication typically focusing on a minority, feminist, or LGBT youth organization. Publications such as "Ways to fight hate on campus" suggest ideas for community activism and diversity education.
Teaching Tolerance also provides advice to parents, encouraging multiculturalism in the upbringing of their children. A guide urges parents to "examine the 'diversity profile' of your children's friends," to move to "integrated and economically diverse neighborhoods," and to discourage children from playing with toys or adopting heroes that "promote violence." The publication also advises parents to use culturally sensitive language (such as the gender-neutral phrasing "Someone Special Day" instead of the traditional Mothers Day and Fathers Day) and to make sure that "cultural diversity (is) reflected in your home's artwork, music and literature."
The SPLC also produces documentary films. Two have won Academy Awards for documentary short subject: Mighty Times: The Children's March, in 2005, and A Time for Justice in 1995.[dead link] Another film was Wall of Tolerance, starring Jennifer Welker. Five others have been nominated for awards.
Law enforcement training 
The SPLC offers training for local, state and federal law enforcement officers by request, focusing "on the history, background, leaders and activities of far-right extremists in the United States".
Tracking of hate groups 
Hate group listings 
The SPLC maintains a list of hate groups defined 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. It says not all groups so listed by the SPLC engage in criminal activity. The Southern Poverty Law Center is listed under the resources section of the Federal Bureau of Investigation web page on hate crimes. The FBI has partnered with the SPLC "to establish rapport, share information, address concerns, and cooperate in solving problems". Due to legal limitations on the FBI, it relies on the SPLC and other civil rights organizations in collecting data on hate groups.
The SPLC reported that 926 hate groups were active in the United States in 2008, up from 888 in 2007. These included:
- 186 separate Ku Klux Klan (KKK) groups with 52 websites
- 196 neo-Nazi groups with 89 websites
- 111 White nationalist groups with 190 websites
- 98 White power skinhead groups with 25 websites
- 39 Christian Identity groups with 37 websites
- 93 neo-Confederate groups with 25 websites
- 113 black separatist groups with 40 websites
- 90 additional groups divided by the SPLC into categories such as anti-gay, anti-immigrant, Holocaust denial, racist music, radical traditionalist Catholic, among other categories for designated hate groups, which maintained another 172 websites. Only organizations active in 2008 were counted, excluding those that appear to exist only on the Internet.
The SPLC's listing of hate groups has been a source of some controversy. The designation of "hate groups" has inspired criticism from conservative elected officials and non-profits. In 2010 it was reported that "22 Republican lawmakers, among them Speaker Boehner and Representative Bachmann, three governors, and a number of conservative organizations took out full-page ads in two Washington papers castigating the SPLC for “character assassination” by listing the conservative Family Research Council as a hate group." [dead link] Critics including journalist Ken Silverstein and political fringe movements researcher Laird Wilcox have accused the SPLC of an incautious approach to assigning the label. In the wake of an August 2012 shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council, some columnists criticized the SPLC's listing of the Family Research Council as an anti-gay hate group while others defended the categorization.[dead link] The SPLC has defended its listing of anti-gay hate groups, stating that groups were selected not because of their stances on political issues such as gay marriage, but rather on their "propagation of known falsehoods about LGBT people . . . that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities." 
Intelligence Report 
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 Report provides information regarding organizational efforts and tactics of these groups, and has been cited by scholars as reliable and as the most comprehensive source on U.S. right-wing extremism and hate groups. In addition to the Intelligence Report, the SPLC publishes the HateWatch Weekly 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, which took second place for Feature Reporting in the Magazine Division in 2007. On March 20, 2009 the Intelligence Project received a Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Immigration Law Foundation for its “outstanding work” covering the anti-immigration movement.
Year in Hate and Extremism 
More recently, the SPLC has released an annual issue of the Intelligence Project called Year in Hate and Extremism, in which they present statistics on the numbers of hate groups in America. However terrorism and U.S. extremism expert J.M. Berger questions the lack of critical analysis of the SPLC figures which is disseminated to the public saying many news organizations, from wire services to TV networks, covered the new figures uncritically. The SPLC looms large in most discussions of American extremism, in large part because they have little or no competition. Very few journalists cover domestic extremism on a regular basis, and those who do tend to work for publications that have an overt political slant. He also questions the methodologies used by the SPLC and questions if they overstate the presence of extremists in the United States. Berger provides an example stating "[The] American Nazi Party is listed six times, and the Council of Conservative Citizens is listed 37 times. There are many more. When you filter the list for organizations with identical names, the list of 1,007 becomes a list of 358".
Academic assessment 
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 its 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." Rory McVeigh, the Chair of the University of Notre Dame Sociology Department, wrote that "its outstanding reputation is well established, and the SPLC has been an excellent source of information for social scientists who study racist organizations."
The SPLC's activities including litigation are supported by fundraising efforts, and it does not accept any fees or share in legal judgments awarded to clients it represents in court. Starting in 1974, the SPLC set aside money for its endowment because it was "convinced that the day (would) come when nonprofit groups (would) no longer be able to rely on support through mail because of posting and printing costs." The SPLC has received criticism for perceived disproportionate endowment reserves and misleading fundraising practices. In 1994 the Montgomery Advertiser ran a series reporting that the SPLC was financially mismanaged and employed misleading fundraising practices. In response 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 Advertiser simply wants to smear the center and Mr. Dees." The series was a finalist for but did not win a 1995 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism. In 1996 USA Today called the SPLC "the nation's richest civil rights organization", with $68 million in assets at the time. Commentators Alexander Cockburn writing in The Nation and Ken Silverstein writing in Harper's Magazine have been sharply critical of the SPLC's fundraising appeals and finances.
The SPLC stated that during 2008 it spent about 69% of total expenses on program services, and that at the end of 2008 the endowment stood at $156.2 million. According to Charity Navigator, SPLC's 2009 outlays fell into the following categories: program expenses of 67.5%, administrative expenses of 13.4%, and fundraising expenses of 18.9%. In October 2011 the SPLC reported its endowment at $223.8 million.
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- The jury divided the judgement against the defendants as follows: Kyle Brewster, $500,000; Ken Mieske, $500,000;, John Metzger, $1 million; WAR, $3 million; Tom Metzger, $5 million; in addition, the jury awarded $2.5 million for Mulugeta's unrealized future earnings and pain and suffering.
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