The headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Alabama  

With hatred so hated today, it’s hardly surprising that some genius would find a way, not just to use hatred to smear political opponents, but to monetize it. That genius was Morris Dees, the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). This is the story of his rise and fall, and the rise and uncertain future of the group he founded.

Dees, who is now 82, began his career as both an Alabama lawyer and direct-mail marketing entrepreneur. In 1971 he created the SPLC to litigate civil rights cases. He developed an innovative and highly successful way of dealing with hate groups – he sued them out of existence. In 1981 he won a US$7 million judgement against the United Klans of America; in 1991 a $12 million judgement against the White Aryan Resistance; in 2001 against Aryan Nations.

Building on the prestige of his legal victories over these extremist groups, he campaigned for donations from Northern liberals. The message was simple (direct mail messages have to be simple): hate groups are multiplying like cockroaches and American needs the SPLC to exterminate them. The SPLC website displays a map of hate groups which is widely reported in the media when it is updated every year. An organisation on its list is often described by journalists as “a recognized hate group”.

Dees and the SPLC have been incredibly successful at raising money. From nothing it has become a company with 350 employees, a $60 million operating budget and an “endowment” of US$471 million “to support our future work”. As a gauge of its wealth, Planned Parenthood has an endowment of only $120 million. While the SPLC does a lot of good work campaigning for prisoners, migrants, and civil rights, it is hatred of hatred which kept the dollars rolling in.

But despite the SPLC’s massive resources and efforts, the flames of American hatred are leaping higher and higher  — at least according to the desperate language used on its website. In 2018, the SPLC’s tally of hate groups had reached 1,020, up 7 per cent from last year and 30 percent since 2014.

Who are these haters? They include Alt-Right groups, Black Nationalist groups, Holocaust Denial groups, Male Supremacy groups, Neo-Confederate groups and more. But along with genuine racist and anti-Semitic groups, the list was inflated by adding anti-immigration, “homophobic” and “transphobic” organisations.

And here the wheels fell off the bus. Included also were groups like the Family Research Council, the World Congress of Families, the Ruth Institute, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American College of Pediatricians, the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM) and others. Their only offence was supporting traditional marriage and opposing legal and social changes which strengthened homosexual and transgender ideologies. But no matter how much they protested, their image was blighted by their label as an SPLC-designated hate group. This made it difficult for them to raise funds and tainted their image in the media. The SPLC was churning out defamation on an industrial scale. (Disclosure: articles by people working for some of these groups have been published on MercatorNet.)

Until now.

Over the past three weeks the moral authority of the SPLC has crumbled like a skyscraper demolished with a controlled blast. On March 13, Morris Dees, its co-founder and leader for nearly 50 years was fired. A press release raised eyebrows everywhere:

We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse — truth, justice, equity, and inclusion. When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.

It seems that a mortar from #MeToo had been lobbed into the SPLC headquarters. Within ten days the president, Richard Cohen, and the legal director, Rhonda Brownstein, had resigned. Tina Tchen, a former chief of staff for Michelle Obama, was engaged “to advise us on workplace culture issues”.

But bland reassurances that the “SPLC is in good hands for many years to come” without any explanation of why Dees had been terminated rang hollow.

Suddenly the media exploded with revelations about the internal working of the SPLC. There were allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and racial discrimination. The shining Camelot of American civil rights activism had been unmasked as just your average toxic workplace.

Once Sir Galahad’s shield of righteousness had cracked, the media started to listen to the long-standing complaints of groups which had been defamed as “haters”.

Stephen Bright, an SPLC critic who is a Yale law professor and former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, was not surprised. “The chickens have had a very long trip, but they finally came home to roost,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Morris is a flimflam man and he’s managed to flimflam his way along for many years raising money by telling people about the Ku Klux Klan and hate groups. He sort of goes to whatever will sell and has, of course, brought in millions and millions and millions of dollars.”

The New Yorker ran a damning feature which claimed that Dees was a “’super-salesman and master fundraiser’ who viewed civil-rights work mainly as a marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals.”

A journalist for a left-leaning publication, Current Affairs, delved into the SPLC’s marketing strategy:

The biggest problem with the hate map, though, is that it’s an outright fraud. I don’t use that term casually. I mean, the whole thing is a willful deception designed to scare older liberals into writing checks to the SPLC. The SPLC reported this year that the number of hate groups in the country is at a “record high,” that it is the “fourth straight year” of hate group growth, and that this growth coincides with Donald Trump’s rise to power. There are now a whopping 1,020 hate groups around the country. America is teeming with hate.

Let’s dig into this number a bit. The first thing you should note is that it’s meaningless. The SPLC consistently declines to identify how many members these hate groups have. It just notes the number of groups. Without knowing how large they are, what does it mean that they exist? Are they one person? 1000?

In short, even the mainstream media is starting to realise that the SPLC hate map is fatally flawed. However, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. The reputations of a good number of honest organisation have been badly tarnished by being described as hate groups. The new president and board of the SPLC should use its internal reboot to break with its own shameful past and make amends for the hate map’s libels.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet