A major storm has brewed over the Southern Poverty Law Center with the recent resignation of its high-paid president and firing of its co-founder. Still troubling is how an “open secret” about organizational dysfunction, charges of racism, sexism and perhaps race-based hucksterism remained so and allowed the group to apparently run roughshod over the reputations of Black groups and the careers of Black employees.
Whenever SPLC labeled an organization a “hate group,” the designation was difficult to challenge and opened the door to condemnation and, perhaps, investigations. In the case of the Nation of Islam and other Black groups falsely labeled as such, the SPLC tag was piled on when others attacked these groups.
Now SPLC president Richard Cohen is stepping down as charges of internal problems and financial opportunism have risen in the media. In a statement March 22, Mr. Cohen requested that SPLC “immediately launch a search for an interim president in order to give the organization the best chance to heal.” He has served as president since 2003 and worked for the organization since 1986. He wished Tina Tchen, a former White House staffer and attorney, well in her review of SPLC and efforts to chart a way forward.
The previous week Morris Dees, a SPLC co-founder, was sacked. SPLC didn’t charge him with anything but issued a statement saying its values had to be respected and all would be held accountable. Charges of possible wrongdoing followed, though Mr. Dees denied any misconduct. But, reports of racism, a SPLC possible staff revolt and other issues quickly came up.
The Montgomery Advertiser, based in Montgomery, Ala., where the SPLC is headquartered, said only four former SPLC employees would talk about their work experiences and insisted on anonymity. “Several of the employees described staff turnover as high and a ‘toxic’ workplace riddled with conflicting priorities and inter-office politics,” said the Advertiser. “All four independently spoke of racial equity concerns in senior leadership, describing a disproportionate amount of people of color serving in entry-level administrative positions compared to the rest of the workforce.”
“A review of the center’s 2019 board and senior staff reveals that senior leadership at SPLC remains largely white,” the newspaper added March 22.
A 1994 Montgomery Advertiser series revealed staffers at the time “accused Morris Dees, the center’s driving force, of being a racist and black employees have ‘felt threatened and banded together.’ Dees strenuously denied the accusation at the time,” the newspaper said. “Dees personally raked in nearly $5.7 million in compensation since 2001 according to a review of publicly available tax documents,” the Advertiser reported.
In a New Yorker magazine piece, ex-SPLC writer Bob Moser said, “Walking to lunch past the center’s Maya Lin-designed memorial to civil-rights martyrs, we’d cast a glance at the inscription from Martin Luther King, Jr., etched into the black marble–‘Until justice rolls down like waters’–and intone, in our deepest voices, ‘Until justice rolls down like dollars.’ … The mailers, in particular, painted a vivid picture of a scrappy band of intrepid attorneys and hate-group monitors, working under constant threat of death to fight hatred and injustice in the deepest heart of Dixie. … But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff–‘the help,’ one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The ‘professional staff’–the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers–were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.”
“In Harper’s, Ken Silverstein had revealed that the center had accumulated an endowment topping a hundred and twenty million dollars while paying lavish salaries to its highest-ranking staffers and spending far less than most nonprofit groups on the work that it claimed to do,” he wrote.
“Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women,” continued Mr. Moser. “But it was hard, for many of us, not to feel like we’d become pawns in what was, in many respects, a highly profitable scam.”
According to critics, Mr. Dees’ marketing genius allowed him to pitch donors about a serious problem, race hatred, in ways that brought in big bucks. SPLC reportedly has nearly a half-trillion dollar endowment. He was paid well for his SPLC work.
“I am glad to see Dees leave S.P.L.C., whatever the reason,” William A. Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School and SPLC critic told The New York Times. “S.P.L.C. long ago focused on combating the Ku Klux Klan, but then abused the reputation it earned for those efforts by demonizing political opponents through the use of hate and extremist lists to stifle speech by people who presented no risk of violence.”
Civil rights leader and politician Julian Bond was a co-founder of the group.
Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan condemned the SPLC designation and called for SPLC to prove their spurious charges.
While so many seemed to know what was happening at SPLC, Blacks, the major targets of American hatred did not. This allowed SPLC to amass dangerous power to mis-define individuals and organizations. One aspect of justice is speaking the truth and shining light into dark places. Without the light of truth, darkness and evil can thrive. It’s worse when those who can paint others as dark and evil suffer from those ills themselves.