On March 14, 2019 the Southern Poverty Law Center publicly fired its founder and long-time leader Morris Dees on accusations of racial and sexual discrimination, and announced it would bring in outside assistance to investigate the climate of the organization Dees had built and ruled over for almost half a century.
Since its founding, the SPLC had been treated — at least in the mainstream media — as an unquestioned arbiter of what qualifies as racism and hatred. Being added to the SPLC’s “Hate List” was the death-knell for any number of organizations that ran afoul of Dees.
In the earliest days of the SPLC, the Alabama-based civil rights law firm did target truly racist and hateful groups, most famously the United Klans of America, which the SPLC devastated in a successful lawsuit it launched in 1984. The result was financial largesse. Money flowed into the SPLC, driven by Dees’s brilliance for direct-mail campaigning and the hope of white liberals that a strong SPLC would mean the end to racism and hatred in America.
But to keep the money flowing, the SPLC kept insisting hate groups and white supremacy were expanding. To do this, an ever-widening definition of hatred was required. The SPLC expanded its list of “hate groups” to include not just the shrinking numbers of vile KKK and neo-Nazi groups, but groups that were merely controversial and even harmless.
Pro-life and pro-family religious groups were targeted beginning in the 1990s. Following 9/11, national security organizations concerned with Islamic terrorism (including this author’s employer) were targeted. Immigration policy groups and religious freedom organizations all fell into the SPLC’s sights at the same time those issues became increasingly a focus for conservatives.
For its efforts the SPLC was richly rewarded, posting nearly half a billion dollars in assets, including more than $120 million in offshore accounts.
Troubled From the Beginning
Things started unraveling Dees and the SPLC in 2018, when the organization was forced to settle with Maajidd Nawaz for more than $3 million. Nawaz, a liberal Muslim reformer, sued for defamation for being named to the SPLC’s “Hate List.”
More than 60 other conservative and Christian organizations targeted by the SPLC announced in 2019 that they too were considering lawsuits, and former SPLC staffer Bob Mosey publicly wrote in The New Yorker what many SPLC former staffers had quietly said for some time, “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.”
Oh, how the mighty had fallen. But as Tyler O’Neil, a senior editor for PJ Media, ably documents in his book, Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center, what seemed like a sudden comeuppance for the SPLC was years in the making. O’Neil, who has carefully followed SPLC’s machinations at PJ Media for years, dug through the history of Dees and the SPLC to reveal the truth that the SPLC was far from the righteous crusaders for civil rights that the direct-mail brochures portrayed.
O’Neil begins by explaining how, as its name suggests, the SPLC was never intended to target hate groups at all. It was designed as a public interest law firm to help impoverished southerners, particularly blacks, on death row. Dees had sought to make his fortune as a lawyer and in the direct mail business during the civil rights era, rather than participate in the momentous effort of that era.
As O’Neil documents, Dees even associated with George Wallace’s Dixiecrats and represented a Klansman charged with assaulting Freedom Riders. It was only later after Dees participated in an American Civil Rights Union lawsuit that an attempt by the Klan to intimidate him backfired and led in part to Dees’s deep-seated antagonism towards the group.
After only nine years of operation, the SPLC had grown in capacity and financial wherewithal to the point that its chief direct mail specialist Michael Fidlow left the organization, pronouncing his work completed. Entering the ’80s, the SPLC adjusted its focus to emphasize only its fight with the Klan, causing the organization’s legal team — excluding Dees — to resign.
By the late 1980s, the SPLC’s trajectory was clear. It would continue to emphasize its fight with so-called “hate groups” while fundraising millions of dollars from northern white liberals anxious to lend their dollars to the ever-widening fight.
While O’Neil catalogs examples of shocking and sordid behavior from the SPLC and its founder — the revelations arising from Dee’s 1980 divorce are particularly disturbing and foreshadow later allegations of sexual harassment — perhaps what is most remarkable about the early history O’Neil cites is how contemporaneously well-documented it was.
O’Neil dutifully cites his sources, including Dees’s shocking memoir, John Egerton’s 1988 article “Poverty Palace,” and the 1994 expose by the Montgomery Advertiser about accusations of SPLC’s racial discrimination. All of these clearly indicate that Dees and his behavior, as well as the corrupt nature of the SPLC’s ever-expanding fundraising, was well known, particularly on the left — yet it was ignored. On top of this, O’Neil piles a number of excellent interviews and insights from former SPLC staffers and long-time critics on both the left and right.
In spite of Dees’s questionable leadership going all the way back to the SPLC’s founding, its influence only expanded. O’Neil here covers the role of the SPLC in policing online speech on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and the major tech companies including Amazon and Google came to increasingly rely on the ever-expansive SPLC “Hate List” for their growing efforts to censor and deplatform, particularly after the tragic events of Charlottesville in 2017.
O’Neil spends a fair amount of energy deconstructing the list, which includes any number of ludicrously mislabeled “hate groups,” such as the proprietor of a Kennesaw civil war memorabilia shop. The SPLC warns that the proprietor’s appearance in the 2002 community theater performance of “The Nutcracker” is a growing sign of acceptance of “hate.”
And many of the “hate groups” that aren’t just plain silly may never have existed at all. O’Neil cites long time political extremism researcher and SPLC critic Laird Wilcox:
‘After 1995, I had calls from police agencies trying to locate some of the SPLC’s ‘hate groups’ They couldn’t find them either. I concluded that a lot of them were vanishingly small or didn’t exist, or could even be the invention of the SPLC,’ Wilcox said. Yet he also described another phenomenon. While many racist groups publish large numbers of local post office listings, to signify many local chapters, most of those addresses were false. The PO box would have been closed after one rental, or the mail was forwarded somewhere else… ‘I also received tip-offs that some of the right-wing groups I had listed were really intelligence-gathering operations with no objective membership, some by federal or state agencies and some by groups like the SPLC…’
While the results of much of the SPLC’s “Hate List” research may have been clownish, being smeared with the “hate group” label had deadly consequences. In 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins Jr. entered the lobby of the Family Research Council and opened fire, wounding Facilities Manager Leo Johnson, before Johnson wrestled Corkins’ gun away.
Corkins later told the FBI he intended to kill every employee of the FRC because he found them included among an SPLC hate group list. As FRC Vice President General Jerry Boykin has noted,
[Corkins] told the judge that he targeted us to kill as many people as possible, and he was going to smear a Chick-Fil-A sandwich in each face of the dead that he killed, because we were a ‘hate group,’ that we hated homosexuals. And that is not true, nothing could be further from the truth…. This whole hate map thing is totally illegitimate, what gives a self-proclaimed arbiter of hate the authority to list people and organizations as ‘haters?’ What gives them that authority? The only thing that gives them that authority is when industry and government use that data as if it was authentic.
Industry collusion with the SPLC reached its zenith post-Charlottesville, as major charity rating organizations Guidestar and Charity Navigator began displaying the SPLC Hate Group designation on their websites, which potential donors use to identify a non-profit’s bona fides. This was followed in some cases by merchant services organizations refusing to process donations to some organizations labeled by the SPLC.
Under the Trump administration, the federal government’s reliance on the SPLC was reportedly curtailed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. However, in other arenas the SPLC’s influence has advanced. Perhaps most disturbing is in the state of Michigan.
As O’Neil writes, Attorney General Dana Nessel and the Michigan Department of Human Rights’ then-executive director Agustin Arbulu openly referenced the SPLC hate group list as the impetus for establishing a new Hate Crimes Unit. The American Freedom Law Center (AFLC), a Michigan-based Public Interest law firm listed by the SPLC, sued Michigan over the effort. (A co-founder of the AFLC also serves as general counsel for this author’s employer.) As AFLC co-founder Robert Muise told O’Neil,
‘It’s one thing for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is a private organization, to engage in political propaganda and political hyperbole… You now have the government giving its endorsement to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s nonsense – that now triggers our constitutional protections,’ Muise insisted. He summed up the Michigan policy, ”we’re going to keep files on you.’ it’s Orwellian. It’s Big Brother. It’s the thought police.’
The AFLC v. Michigan lawsuit is just one of nine significant lawsuits against the SPLC or their big tech allies O’Neil includes towards the end of the book, and which causes the book to end on a somewhat hopeful note.
A Victim of Its Own Success
Despite the exposure of Dees and the SPLC’s bad behavior and the accompanying rise in resistance to the group’s dishonest and dangerous “Hate List,” it’s far too early to celebrate. Arguably one reason criticism from the left on the issue of sexual and racial discrimination (long known and never acted upon) could suddenly topple the SPLC leadership is that the SPLC has become altogether too successful in its mission.
In the Trump era, the effort to redefine any and all opposition to the left and its policies as white supremacy is so de rigueur throughout media that references to the SPLC’s reputation as the keeper of the “the list” are hardly essential. In their anti-Trump zeal, the left increasingly no longer requires the SPLC to put its imprimatur on the slander of their ideological opponents.
In August 2019, ABC News noted somewhat gleefully that seven of the leading Democratic candidates for president had openly called President Trump a “white supremacist.” Left-leaning national security journalists openly seek the designation of domestic white supremacist groups as foreign terrorists even while they accuse the president’s advisors of being “extremists.” A substantial industry has popped up perpetuating the false perception that white supremacists (or just white American men in general) are the gravest terrorism threat by aggressively massaging the statistics while evidence continues to show that the threat of jihadist terrorism remains the far more lethal challenge.
None of this is to say that white supremacy isn’t a fundamentally anti-American ideology that deserves to be challenged. But the very act of conflating everything the SPLC — and the left more generally — doesn’t like into white supremacy makes that task substantially harder.
In a world where Mother Jones writers must remind their readers that calling Bernie Sanders a white supremacist isn’t useful, it’s easy to see the charge losing its rhetorical sting. Already Republicans, with the possible exception of a few rump Never Trump figures, are increasingly unwilling to take SPLC-fueled media accusations seriously. The shriller the screams about “haters,” the less conservatives pay any mind.
Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center does an ample job exposing the SPLC as a dishonest racket and hypocritical arbiter of hate. It provides ample evidence to help conservatives back up that claim, and O’Neil is to be credited for providing it. Unfortunately, while the right may treat the wild accusations of SPLC and its imitators scornfully, it’s unlikely that the book will move the needle with those who take the SPLC’s argument at face value: big tech, woke capital, and elements of the homeland security establishment.
The SPLC may be corrupt. It may even be racist and sexist. But for those seeking to silence their political opponents, the SPLC is useful. For that reason alone, it is likely to endure.