Southern Poverty Law Center

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The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an American legal advocacy organization for civil rights causes, founded in 1971 by attorneys Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. while arguing a desegregation case involving the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). After the case ended, future American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) president Julian Bond was hired as the president of the SPLC.

The SPLC originally focused their legal work on racist groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Their Klanwatch program has since been expanded into Hatewatch, which keeps track of all forms of American hate groups. Their website is a fantastically useful resource collection. In what we're all sure is a complete coincidence, presence of SPLC listed hate groups in a county is a strong predictor of far-right violence.[1]

The SPLC and Christian hate groups[edit]

The SPLC releases an annual list of what they consider to be currently active hate groups. They have recently, during the last few years, added a few Christian fundamentalist and evangelical ministries to the list, which espouse homophobia, anti-Catholicism, and/or hatred against Muslims. Examples include the Family Research Council, Chick Publications, Traditional Values Coalition, Power of Prophecy, Parents Action League, and the American Family Association. Most of the groups have objected to the title, claiming they are not hateful.

Anyone who has ever gotten involved in born again Christianity has known about these groups for years; although some, like Jack Chick, are bona-fide cranks, many have been around for decades and are hardly "fringe" within American evangelicalism. Two questions come to mind:

  1. What took the SPLC so long to add them to their list?
  2. Why just these few token groups, and why are so many other obvious ones missing? One searches in vain for any of Pat Robertson's groups, Liberty University and anything else associated with the Falwells, the Scottsdale, Arizona Spiritual Freedom Church, Bob Jones University, Sword of the Lord, or any of the megachurches. Give the SPLC credit for at least adding a few such groups, but it's so much easier to just top-load the list with "groups" that are just some 18-year old skinhead with a post office box and web page, isn't it?

This latter issue may be far more damaging to their mission than it seems, as it makes their addition of a few Christian extremists here and there look like targeted axe-grinding instead of a result of the application of a broad, consistent standard. The fact that they do not present their criteria for inclusion furthers this effect, unfortunately. However, given the raging persecution complex and political and media influence of the likes of Robertson or Falwell, their absence is understandable, if lamentable. Likewise, there is probably a very practical reason for the SPLC not to publish their evaluation standards, namely the extremely legalistic and litigious nature of the U.S. political field in which they operate.[note 1]

Ben Carson[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Ben Carson

The 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson wound up on the SPLC's list of extremists in October 2014. In February 2015, this came to the conservative media's attention, they covered this months-old happening as news for a while, and the SPLC eventually removed his profile, apologized, but then fired quite the Parthian shot.[2] Effectively, the SPLC buckled under the scrutiny of the Fair and Balanced media and admitted that its original profile of Carson was sloppy, while simultaneously highlighting examples of Carson's statements that would merit his inclusion on the list, given a better researched profile.


Progressive criticism[edit]

The Poverty Palace
What the Center's other work for justice does not include is anything that might be considered controversial by donors. According to Millard Farmer, the Center largely stopped taking death-penalty cases for fear that too visible an opposition to capital punishment would scare off potential contributors. In 1986, the Center's entire legal staff quit in protest of Dees's refusal to address issues — such as homelessness, voter registration, and affirmative action — that they considered far more pertinent to poor minorities, if far less marketable to affluent benefactors, than fighting the KKK. Another lawyer, Gloria Browne, who resigned a few years later, told reporters that the Center's programs were calculated to cash in on "black pain and white guilt." Asked in 1994 if the SPLC itself, whose leadership consists almost entirely of white men, was in need of an affirmative action policy, Dees replied that "probably the most discriminated people in America today are white men when it comes to jobs. (…) A National Journal survey of salaries paid to the top officers of advocacy groups shows that Dees earned more in 1998 than nearly all of the seventy-eight listed, tens of thousands more than the heads of such groups as the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Children's Defense Fund. The more money the SPLC receives, the less that goes to other civil rights organizations, many of which, including the NAACP, have struggled to stay out of bankruptcy. Dees's compensation alone amounts to one quarter the annual budget of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which handles several dozen death-penalty cases a year. "You are a fraud and a conman," the Southern Center's director, Stephen Bright, wrote in a 1996 letter to Dees, and proceeded to list his many reasons for thinking so, which included "your failure to respond to the most desperate needs of the poor and powerless despite your millions upon millions, your fund-raising techniques, the fact that you spend so much, accomplish so little, and promote yourself so shamelessly." Soon the SPLC will move into a new six-story headquarters in downtown Montgomery, just across the street from its current headquarters, a building known locally as the Poverty Palace.[3]

The progressive Mother Jones magazine has criticized them for casting their net too widely and including activists motivated primarily by civil liberties or libertarian issues, whose views have been construed by others to support racist ideologies (for example, states' rights advocates whose statements might fall in line with Confederate sympathizers).[4] Some of the more notable selections include the Ludwig von Mises Institute, dedicated to worshipping the corpses of Murray Rothbard and other Austrian economics superstars, as well as factions of the Tea Party that insist they do in fact need that many guns.

Not only has the SPLC never added any TERF to their list of hate groups, but the SPLC has even worked with infamous transphobic hatemonger Cathy Brennan (which isn't the same as saying they haven't taken any transgender-centered cases[5]).

In 2000, Ken Silverstein of Harper's magazine accused the SPLC of using intolerance as a fundraising mechanism.[6]

Atheist criticism[edit]

On October 25, 2016, the SPLC profiled a number of "Anti-Muslim Extremists" which included Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz (a Muslim himself),[7] sparking criticism from Sam Harris,[8] Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist blog,[9] and Sarah Haider of Ex-Muslims of North America.[10]

SPLC eventually (in June 2018) settled with Nawaz after he sued them for defamationWikipedia (in June 2017), paying him $3.375 million and publicly apologizing to him in their website.[11]

Right-libertarian "criticism"[edit]

John Stossel and Maxim Lott, in a article, have criticised the SPLC as a "scam".[12] For instance, they don't like that the Family Research Council, a bigoted anti-gay organization, is listed as a hate group, because its classification encouraged a domestic terrorist to attack the Family Research Council; therefore, the classification is wrong and scammy. Stossel and Lott also don't like that the SPLC categorized the Ruth Institute as a hate group because, despite believing that gays shouldn't have the same rights to adopt or marry, the Institute insists that they have no problem with gay people. They further criticized the SPLC for their founder Morris Dees paying himself nearly half a million dollars, and that the company promised that they would cease fundraising when they reached an endowment of $50 million, and yet with $320 million they continue to fundraise.[12]

Finally, Stossel and Lott criticized SPLC for not listing Antifa as a hate group.[12] The SPLC have addressed this criticism in their FAQ:

Why doesn't the SPLC list antifa as a hate group?
The SPLC condemns violence in all its forms, including the violent acts of far-left street movements like antifa (short for anti-fascist). But the propensity for violence, though present in many hate groups, is not among the criteria for listing. Also, antifa groups do not promote hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity[.][13]

Because SPLC had criteria that led to a result Stossel and Lott didn't like and SPLC failed to condemn Antifa enough, they concluded that the SPLC has become "a hate group itself. It is now a left-wing, money grabbing, slander machine."[12]

The SPLC has been criticized in a Bloomberg article, which states that "the center offers bizarrely shifting rationales that suggest that the staff started with the target they wanted to deem hateful, and worked backward to the analysis."[14]

Allegations of abusive work environment[edit]

Despite being an organization that advocates social justice, SPLC has come under fire for its lack of diversity in its ranks as well as a toxic work environment that regularly has sexist and racist interactions.[15][16] Following the resignation of senior attorney Meredith Horton and a major staff revolt against SPLC's rampant mistreatment of female and nonwhite employees, including multiple incidents of sexual harassment from Morris Dees himself that had been covered up (young women working at the organization were expected to be hit on by Dees), Dees was fired from the SPLC and his profile on their site removed; Richard Cohen resigned less than two weeks later.[17] Dees, who was previously key in helping shape the organization, was fired for unspecified inappropriate conduct.[15] According to a 1994 series from The Montgomery Advertiser,[16] there has been internal strife in the organization regarding its goals, with disgruntled staff complaining about the organization's focus on the Ku Klux Klan rather than equally-important, but more mundane systemic racism issues including poverty, voting rights, and capital punishment. According to former staffers, the discrimination within the organization has been widespread and embedded in it for years.[18]

Dees himself tried to excuse himself from the criticism back in 1994 by claiming that it was difficult to hire black lawyers, and he whined that the "most discriminated people in America today are white men when it comes to jobs."[16] This is jaw-dropping bullshit coming from someone who has gotten his hands dirty working so close with systemic discrimination and is a white man swimming in a lot of cash from the success of his organization, where its leadership is primarily white men.

Hit pieces[edit]

In September 2017, the conservative site Free Beacon published a juicy piece[19] detailing SPLC executive salaries and supposedly nefarious offshore accounts. Reports crying financial foul soon spread throughout the right-wing blogosphere, appearing in the Daily Wire,[20] Washington Times,[21] and of course Breitbart.[22]

Offshore investments are common for larger non-profits according to SPLC's financial advisory firm,[23] whereas other large civil rights organization do not do this. The American Civil Liberties Union and related ACLU Foundation have combined assets of more than $250 million, but both 990s filed by the groups answer "no" to a question about "aggregate foreign investments valued at $100,000 or more." Another civil rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, similarly avoids foreign investments, though the organization's assets total about $9 million.[24]

Salaries in question[edit]

Richard Cohen, president and chief executive officer of the SPLC, was given $346,218 in base compensation in 2015, its tax forms show. Cohen received $20,000 more in other reportable compensation and non-taxable benefits. Morris Dees, SPLC's chief trial counsel, received a salary of $329,560 with $42,000 in additional reportable compensation and non-taxable benefits.[25]

External links[edit]


  1. Compare with the "Do not discuss this or we risk getting sued" practicality on RationalWiki.


  1. The Relationship Between Hate Groups and Far-Right Ideological Violence
  3. The Poverty Palace
  4. Stephanie Mencimer, "SPLC Highlights New Extremist Leaders To Watch", Mother Jones 5/25/2012
  6. The church of Morris Dees. Harper's: November 2000.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 The Southern Poverty Law Center Scam A "hate group" list loved by the media is bogus. Stossel & Maxim Lott, January 16, 2018
  14. McArdle, Megan. Southern Poverty Law Center Gets Creative to Label 'Hate Groups'. Bloomberg. 8‎ ‎September‎ ‎2017‎.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Matt Pearce. (March 14, 2019). "Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder Morris Dees amid employee uproar". LA Times. Accessed November 24, 2021.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Brown, M.; Edwards. B. (March 16, 2019). 'Civil rights' movement television evangelist': Dees weathered criticism for decades amidst SPLC's groundbreaking legal work". The Montgomery Advertiser. Accessed November 24, 2021.
  17. Cullinane, S; Silverman, H.; Sayers, D. (March 24, 2021). "Southern Poverty Law Center president resigns after a co-founder was fired". CNN. Accessed November 24, 2021.
  18. Moser, B. (March 21, 2019). "The Reckoning of Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center". The New Yorker. Accessed November 24, 2021.
  23. See statement from Cambridge Associates
  24. See statement from Cambridge Associates