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The Southern Poverty Law Center

Spinning Hate into Gold

by Terrell Clemmons

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 23

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was founded in1971 in Montgomery, Alabama, by attorneys Morris Dees and Joseph Levin, Jr., "to ensure that the promises of the civil rights movement became a reality for all." The founders spent many of their early years pursuing causes arguably consistent with that mission, such as defending prisoners who faced the death penalty, suing to desegregate all-white institutions, and pressing for prison reforms. While Levin has remained connected to the organization in various capacities, Morris Dees has been its public face and figurehead since its founding.

Reasons For Surveillance

A former direct-mail salesman, Dees adapted his marketing finesse to fundraising, and many well-meaning donors responded favorably. This could have been spun into good fortune for the oppressed, but somewhere along the way, ensuring "justice and equality for society's most vulnerable" degenerated into "fundraising for poverty." In 1986, the center's entire legal staff quit in protest over Dees's refusal to prioritize issues they considered more pressing for the poor—such as homelessness, voter registration, and affirmative action—over fighting the KKK, which brought in the bigger bucks.

Not only was Dees a clever fundraiser, he was also a shrewd legal strategist. He pioneered the lucrative scheme of bringing civil suits against organizations for alleged wrongful actions of individual members. Whereas justice would demand that the actual perpetrators of a crime be prosecuted, Dees simply demanded that somebody pay. And he stood ready to do the collecting. When cases went his way—and many did, for the desire to stamp out racism was high—he secured court orders for monetary damages and seizure of the defendant organization's assets.

Here's how one case played out: In 1987, Dees won a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America (UKA) on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, whose son was lynched by two Klansmen. The UKA's total assets amounted to one warehouse, and Mrs. Donald received approximately $52,000 from the proceeds of its sale. But Dees and the SPLC scored the real financial gain. According to a series of stories in the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper, the SPLC raked in $9 million from fundraising solicitations for the case, including one showing a photo of Michael Donald's corpse.

The SPLC poses as a social justice organization, but clearly, its modus operandi reek of hustling, huckstering, and extortion. Today, the SPLC does it all out of its Montgomery headquarters, a $24-million, six-story building constructed in 2005 that locals refer to as "The Poverty Palace."

Most Recent Offense

With the KKK having, thankfully, shriveled to a statistically trivial 2,000 members by the year 2000, the SPLC moved away from filing lawsuits to raising awareness about the threat of "hate groups." A cursory look at the organizations so designated, though, reveals a malignant streak. Organizations that uphold pro-life, pro-family, and pro-marriage (of the man-woman variety) morals are (ta-da!) "hate groups" and earn a spot on the SPLC's "Hate Map." (Yes, Salvo would qualify.) Like a self-appointed, national thought-crime hall monitor, the SPLC presents regular "intelligence files" and an annual "Year in Hate" report to municipal, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Never mind that traditional morality does not constitute "hate," and that "heightened awareness" by itself has never helped the actual victims of anything, "hate-mapping," too, is apparently quite profitable. According to tax records, at the end of 2010 the SPLC was sitting on "private investment funds" exceeding $200 million, with Dees and top SPLC execs—including co-founder Levin—collecting annual salaries well into six figures. They have stamped out poverty quite splendidly—for themselves. There's big money in hate. 

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