Editor’s Note: This article by Kevin Michael Grace about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) first appeared in Chronicles Magazine, June 1, 2004
IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, A Season For Justice, Morris Dees describes his 1967 epiphany in snowbound Cincinnati. Dees was, at the time, a millionaire 31-year-old lawyer, salesman, and publisher. While he had “sympathized with the Civil Rights Movement,” he “had not become actively involved.” By the time he arrived in Chicago, however, he was determined to “specialize in civil rights law.” The defiant Dees declared: “It did not matter what my neighbors would think, or the judges, the bankers, or even my relatives.” Morris Dees contra mundum. Four decades later, it may be confidently stated that, whatever neighbors, relatives, and judges might think, Dees’ bankers have no cause for complaint.
In 1971, Dees co-founded (with Joseph Levin and Julian Bond) the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. Poverty law is redolent of storefront lawyers with clip-on ties and ponytails sworn to good works. Dees, however, has always believed in doing well by doing good. His former business partner, Millard Fuller, once said that he and Dees “shared the overriding purpose in making a pile of money.” He added, “We were not particular about how we did it; we just wanted to be independently rich.” After selling his publishing company, Dees bought a luxuriously appointed 200-acre estate. Fuller, on the other hand, repented of his greed, gave a fortune to charity, and founded Habitat for Humanity.
The SPLC is itself a charity, tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. According to its audited financial statement of October 31, 2003, it had total assets of $156.9 million and an endowment fund of $120.5 million. In its last fiscal year, it had revenues of $27.7 million, including $25.4 million in contributions. In 2002, Dees received a salary of $258,048; Levin, $225,535; and general counsel Richard Cohen, $225,535. (Julian Bond is now an unpaid board member.)
In November 2000, Ken Silverstein wrote in Harper’s:
“Morris Dees doesn’t need your financial support. The SPLC is already the wealthiest civil rights group in America . . . Back in 1978, when the center had less than $10 million, Dees promised that his organization would quit fund-raising and live off interest as soon as its endowment hit $55 million. But as it approached that figure, the SPLC upped the bar to $100 million, a sum that, one 1989 newsletter promised, would allow the center “to cease the costly and often unreliable task of fundraising.””
According to a 2003 report in the Fairfax Journal, the SPLC expended 89 percent of its income on this ostensibly “unreliable” fundraising and on administration.
According to its IRS return, the goals of the SPLC are “to combat hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation” and to “provid[e] legal services for victims of civil rights injustice and hate crimes.” The SPLC has specialized in suing to seize the assets of neo-Nazis and Klansmen to compensate victims of racially inspired violence. More recently, it joined with the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to remove Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from the bench after he refused to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. General counsel Cohen argued that Moore’s granite Decalogue was so offensive to sensitive Alabamians that they purposely avoided the judicial building. Heaven knows what agonies these souls would endure should they ever visit, say, the Lincoln Memorial, with its angel and its invocations of God and the Bible.
The SPLC’s primary purpose is not litigation, however, but the pressuring of public opinion. And its “education” is on the order of Joe, the fat boy in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, who says, “I wants to make your flesh creep.”
In Morris Dees’ America, night is always falling. It is a nation of ceaseless cross-burnings and lynchings, where minorities cower endlessly in fear, waiting helplessly for the next assault from the Klan, skinheads, the League of the South, Thomas Fleming, Samuel Francis and Chronicles, Peter Brimelow and VDare.com, David Horowitz and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, the American Enterprise Institute . . .
The American Enterprise Institute? Surely there must be some mistake. Not at all. According to the SPLC website (splcenter.org):
Under the name Klanwatch, the Project began monitoring hate activity in 1981. In 1994, after uncovering links between white supremacist organizations and the emerging antigovernment “Patriot” movement, the Center expanded its monitoring operation to include militias and other extremist groups. Today, the Project tracks more than 700 hate groups around the nation. The quarterly Intelligence Report provides comprehensive updates to law enforcement agencies, the media and the general public.
Clearly, by 1994, even the SPLC realized there was no longer much to fear from the KKK, that tiny band of bedraggled and government-infiltrated losers. Even so, according to the SPLC’s most recent The Year in Hate, “Buoyed by rising numbers of Skinhead and Klan groups, the American radical right staged something of a comeback last year, following a tumultuous period that saw the destruction or hobbling of some of the nation’s leading hate groups.”
So what is the connection between AEI and some of the nation’s leading hate groups? Well, you see, AEI “in recent years has sponsored scholars whose views are seen by many as bigoted or even racist.” You have to love that passive verb, seen. For example? “For example, Dinesh D’Souza.” He holds a fellowship there and also holds heterodox opinions on the civil-rights movement. (You might think that D’Souza shopping Samuel Francis to save his own skin and getting him fired from the Washington Times would score him points with the SPLC, but apparently not.) More “controversial” still is AEI fellow Charles Murray, who wrote The Bell Curve, which cites research funded by the “racist” Pioneer Fund. Why is the Pioneer Fund “racist”? Because it endorses the idea of racial differences. It is a commonplace today for those that believe in the very idea of race to be condemned as “racist,” although it is hard to understand how such a thing as “racism” could exist in the absence of races.
The Pioneer Fund is a particular SPLC obsession, as is the immigration-reform movement—in particular, Michigan activist John Tanton, its sinister “puppeteer”:
A four-month investigation by the Intelligence Report, conducted in the aftermath of the September terrorist attacks, found that the appearance of an array of groups with large membership bases is nothing more than a mirage. In fact, the vast majority of American anti-immigration groups—more than a dozen in all—were either formed, led, or in other ways made possible through Tanton’s efforts.
You have to love that en passant reference to “the September terrorist attacks.”
The SPLC could doubtless find a connection between immigration reform and September 11 easily enough. The technique it uses to ferret out those “seen” as “racists” is one well known to aficionados of conspiracy theory: “consanguinity.” As the old song put it, “I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales.” Or as Thomas Fleming put it, “If Congressman Tom Tancredo or [American Conservative executive editor] Scott McConnell has ever met anyone who met anyone who took money from the Pioneer Fund, they must be bigots.” By this measure, every person and organization to the right of the Southern Poverty Law Center is beyond the pale—which is precisely the point. Consanguinity is self-evidently a shoddy logical tool. Not so long ago, those on the right who employed it were accused of “McCarthyism.” Police departments and schools, however, make use of Dees’ smears and “Teaching Tolerance” materials. In 2001, Dees was the recipient of the National Education Association’s highest honor, the Friend of Education Award. And whenever any credulous member of the media wants the lowdown on “hate,” he gives the SPLC a call.
OTHER SPLC BÊTE NOIRES include “neo-Confederates”; Pat Buchanan; the Bradley, Olin, and Scaife Foundations; the Free Congress Foundation; the Council of Conservative Citizens; the Ludwig von Mises Institute; and the New Century Foundation, publisher of American Renaissance.
Those added to the SPLC’s enemies list are inclined to consider it a rather higher honor than any NEA gong. David Horowitz, however, was mortified. Horowitz was added for his opposition to reparations for slavery. Two howls of protest were published on Horowitz’s website, FrontPageMag.com. His own cri de coeur was an open letter to Morris Dees, which begged him not to lump him in with the real bad guys:
You’ve made yourself a national reputation as a fighter against hate groups. Recently, however, you released a report called “Into the Mainstream” by a leftwing conspiracy theorist named Chip Berlet, which purports to show how “right wing foundations and think tanks support efforts to make bigoted and discredited ideas respectable.” This report is so tendentious, so filled with transparent misrepresentations and smears that if you continue to post the report you will create for your Southern Poverty Law Center a well-earned reputation as a hate group itself.
Where has Horowitz been? It is an old story: First, they came for the Pioneer Fund, and I did not speak out because I was not a eugenicist . . . One really does not know who to root for here. It is richly amusing to see David Horowitz, who has used his influence to spread the poisonous notion that the critics of neoconservatives are antisemitic, now forced to defend himself against the charge of “racism.”
Of course, Morris Dees would have to go back to peddling cookbooks if so many white Americans were not terrified by the mere suggestion they might be “racist.” Alone among Western countries, America has yet to surrender fully to the demand for speech codes and “hate” legislation. For the time being, enforcing the dictates of “tolerance” is a nongovernmental (though tax-free) activity. And Morris Dees’ only rival for Commissar of Tolerance is Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.
The ADL, of course, has recently branched out into film criticism and promotion. Foxman’s campaign against Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ not only failed to kill the movie but succeeded in making it one of the most profitable movies in history, with domestic receipts of $370 million and worldwide receipts of over $600 million.
Not to be left behind, the SPLC has also entered the movie-review racket. In January, its website tolerance.org reprinted an article by Andrea Lewis entitled “A ‘Return’ of the White Patriarchy?” According to Lewis, “The ‘[Lord of the] Rings’ films are like promotional ads for those tired old race and gender [sic] paradigms that were all the rage back in author J.R.R. Tolkien’s day. Almost all of the heroes of the series are manly men who are whiter than white.” Conspiracy mongering has certainly moved forward from the days when “Puff the Magic Dragon” was “revealed” to be a marijuana allegory. Lewis prefers the new race and sex paradigms of the Matrix films, where “a multi-culti group of hackers dressed in black leather and sporting funky hairdos are our heroes; Secret Service-type ‘agents’ in suits and ties are the bad guys.”
By the time Lewis’s jeremiad appeared, it was too late to kill the Rings series. It had already made billions. It was not too late, however, to influence the Academy Awards. Still, the Academy, not known to be an especially right-wing organization, was not interested. The Return of the King was nominated for 11 Oscars and won every single one.
This Tale of Three Epics suggests that the SPLC, for all its millions in donations, may, like the ADL, have passed its peak. For if the hobbits of the Shire and the American Enterprise Institute are “racist,” then everybody is “racist”—or no one is. Or the term no longer has any utility. Or as Peter Brimelow says, “A racist is someone who is winning an argument against a liberal.”
Movie buffs will recall that a TV movie was made about Dees. Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story was released in 1991. In a delicious irony, this hagiography starred Corbin Bernsen, best remembered as the slimy lawyer Arnie Becker from L.A. Law.