400 Washington Avenue
Montgomery, Alabama 36104
Telephone: (334) 956-8200
Fax: (334) 956-8483
Web site: http://www.splcenter.org
Total Assets: $36.65 million (2003)
NAIC: 541190 Other Legal Services; 813311 Human Rights Organizations
The Southern Poverty Law Center, Inc. (SPLC) is an organization that seeks to improve civil rights for poor Americans and immigrants through legal action, the gathering of intelligence on hate groups, and education. It is best known for a series of lawsuits that helped shut down white supremacist groups by winning large monetary judgments for their victims, while others have improved conditions for prisoners and other institutionalized persons and protected the rights of children and immigrants. The organization's Intelligence Project (formerly Klanwatch) monitors the activities of hate groups around the United States and publishes the quarterly Intelligence Report for law enforcement officials, while the Immigrant Justice Project takes on cases involving abuse of immigrants in the southern United States. The SPLC's education wing, tolerance.org, creates and distributes educational materials for use in K-12 classrooms, including a Web site and a semi-annual magazine that is sent to 500,000 educators. The organization also publishes trial strategy manuals and offers grants to attorneys through its Strategic Litigation Grant Project. The SPLC does not charge clients for its services but is funded by donations and interest drawn from its $136 million endowment fund.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in 1971 by two white lawyers in Montgomery, Alabama, Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin, Jr., who banded together to form an organization that would take up the plight of poor Southern blacks in the legal arena. They would perform their work pro bono, with no charge to their clients.
Born in 1936 to a family of Alabama farmers, Dees had founded a direct marketing company as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama to sell birthday cakes by mail, and after graduating from law school in 1960 went on to sell such items as cookbooks, hair cream, and tractor cushions. He began to practice law in Montgomery, and although in 1961 he represented a white man accused of beating a freedom rider, he felt strong sympathy for the plight of blacks in the still largely segregated South. In February 1968, after a night spent reading a biography of crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow at a snowed-in airport, he made a decision to take up the cause of civil rights. One of his first successes was a case which led to the integration of the all-white Montgomery YMCA. In 1969, Dees sold his highly successful publishing company, Fuller & Dees Marketing Group, to Times Mirror for $6 million, and turned to civil rights law full-time.
Joseph Levin, born in 1943, had also gotten his law degree from the University of Alabama, and, after two years in the U.S. Army, returned to work in his father's law practice in Montgomery. He had seen racism firsthand while at college when the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross in the yard of his Jewish fraternity house. Watching Dees's efforts to challenge the racist status quo in Montgomery, Levin decided to help. The pair went into practice together, and Levin & Dees soon evolved into the SPLC. Its primary purpose, according to Dees's 1991 book A Season For Justice, was "to fight the effects of poverty with innovative lawsuits and education programs." It would attempt to end "customs, practices, and laws that were used to keep low-income blacks and whites powerless."
Seeking a prominent Civil Rights activist to head the new organization, the pair recruited Julian Bond for the title of honorary president. Born in 1940, Bond had helped found the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and been nominated for vice-president at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where he had given a memorable speech, though he was not able to accept the nomination because of his age.
Soon after incorporating the SPLC, seasoned marketer Dees started a direct mail fundraising campaign, sending out 25,000 letters to members of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization received enough donations to hire a small staff and take on more cases, and after Dees raised $24 million for the unsuccessful 1972 presidential bid of Democratic Senator George McGovern, he received a copy of the campaign's mailing list of 700,000 names, which was used to raise further contributions for the SPLC.
One of the organization's first notable cases was Nixon v. Brewer, which focused on giving poor blacks and whites better representation in the Alabama state legislature. The case was a success and led to the state changing its rules to require a single representative per voting district rather than the former "at large" method which tended to favor whites.
Another of the SPLC's early cases was Paradise v. Allen, a 1972 lawsuit that sought to integrate the all-white ranks of the Alabama State Police. After the state was ordered to hire one black trooper for every white one hired until the force was 25 percent black, the state tried a variety of means to avoid compliance. The case was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 in favor of the SPLC's client.
Other cases of the early 1970s forced the federal government to change Department of Defense regulations that denied some benefits to dependents of servicewomen and led to prison reforms in Alabama, with the judge calling the prisons "wholly unfit for human habitation" in his ruling.
Though it typically stuck with class action lawsuits, the SPLC was also taking on more cases for individuals, primarily those involving the death penalty. One of the first of these was that of the "Tarboro Three," a trio of young black men sentenced to death for allegedly raping a white woman in 1973. The SPLC found a witness who contradicted the testimony of the victim and other exculpatory evidence, and the men were ultimately given a much-reduced sentence and released. Other well-known cases included that of Joan Little, a black woman who killed a white prison guard she claimed was trying to rape her, and Johnny Ross, convicted of raping a white woman in Louisiana in 1975 and sentenced to death at age 16. Both had their death sentences reversed.
The year 1976 saw Julian Bond give up the title of SPLC president, while Dees took time off to help raise funds for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. Levin, who had served as the SPLC's legal director for its first five years and worked on more than 50 major cases, supervised Carter's Justice Department transition team and then remained in Washington to serve in the administration. In 1979, he went into private law practice in Washington, though he remained involved with the SPLC as its president and board chairman.
In 1976, the SPLC also started a new operation called Team Defense, for which its attorneys developed strategies to fight death penalty cases that were shared with other lawyers via seminars and a series of manuals. In 1977, a dispute over fundraising methods between Dees and the head of the Team Defense Project, Millard Farmer, resulted in lawsuits between the two and Farmer leaving the organization.
Successes of this era included a lawsuit that helped end job requirements that discriminated against women seeking to work in Alabama as prison guards and a suit against a cotton mill by a worker who had contracted a respiratory disease from the dust he inhaled while working there, which cost him his job when he became too ill to work. He received a financial settlement, and the case led to federal regulations limiting the amount of dust to which workers could be exposed. By 1979, the SPLC had a staff of five lawyers and two investigators, and an endowment of more than $5 million.
In 1979, at a peaceful protest march in Decatur, Alabama, more than 100 Klansmen attacked marchers with bats and guns. Many were beaten, and two were shot in the head. The FBI investigated but did not charge the Klansmen, though a black marcher was charged with assault. The SPLC soon got involved, filing a civil suit against the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and several of its members. The lawsuit was later resolved in a ruling that several Klansmen pay damages, perform civil service, and refrain from supremacist activities. The organization also uncovered new evidence in the case, which led to the convictions of nine of the Klansmen.
Largely as a result of that case, in 1981 the SPLC founded a new unit called Klanwatch to monitor and report on the activities of hate organizations around the United States. Shortly after its formation, the SPLC filed suit against another group of Klansmen in Texas who had been training in paramilitary camps. When an association of white shrimp fishermen recruited them to help frighten off a rival group of Vietnamese immigrant fishermen, the Klan threatened the latter and allegedly burned some of their boats. The judge issued an injunction against the Klan intimidating the fishermen and later forced them to disband their training camp.
In 1983, an arsonist set fire to the firm's offices in Montgomery. Though it had evidently been set in an attempt to destroy the organization's Klan files, many documents critical to the case were undamaged. Two Klan members and a Klan sympathizer later pled guilty and were sentenced to prison. Dees and other staffers received frequent threats of violence, and they were often escorted by armed guards, while the firm's offices and Dees's home were kept under guard around the clock.
Throughout its history, the Center has worked to make the nation's Constitutional ideals a reality. The Center's legal department fights all forms of discrimination and works to protect society's most vulnerable members, handling innovative cases that few lawyers are willing to take. Over three decades, it has achieved significant legal victories, including landmark Supreme Court decisions and crushing jury verdicts against hate groups.
The 1984 case of Beulah Mae Donald v. United Klans of America brought a new weapon to the SPLC's arsenal, one that it would use many times in the future. In 1981, Donald's son Michael had been killed at random by Klan members who sought to intimidate blacks in Mobile, Alabama, after an interracial jury had acquitted a black man accused of killing a policeman. Though the two Klansmen who killed Donald were later convicted, the SPLC decided to seek a further level of relief by suing the Klan group they belonged to for monetary damages. In 1987, the case was settled with an award of $7 million to Ms. Donald. As a result, the Klan's headquarters building was turned over to her, and the organization was effectively shut down.
In 1989, the SPLC won a similar judgment for $12.5 million against White Aryan Resistance founder Tom Metzger for the family of an Egyptian college student murdered by white supremacists in Portland, Oregon, who had been encouraged by Metzger to commit the act. The 1980s also saw an important victory in the area of tax equity, with owners of coal mines in Kentucky forced to pay a greater share of taxes on their coal reserves, resulting in improved funding for local schools and the creation of new jobs.
In 1989, the SPLC unveiled the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Vietnam War Memorial architect Mia Lin, across the street from its Montgomery headquarters. Featuring the names of more than 30 individuals killed in the struggle for civil rights, it became a major tourist attraction for the city.
In 1991, the organization founded a new program called Teaching Tolerance to give educators help in promoting respect for diversity. It published a semi-annual magazine and also offered teaching materials and multimedia kits to K-12 educators in 55,000 schools, as well as grants for those creating programs in their communities. A decade later it would extend its offerings with a Web site, www.tolerance.org.
Continuing to take up controversial subjects, in 1992 the SPLC sued the governor of Alabama over the state's use of the Confederate battle flag over the capitol dome. The suit was successful, and it was taken down. During the 1990s the firm also took on a number of cases involving prisoners' rights, winning changes in the way inmates were hospitalized, expanding the reading materials they were allowed, and ending use of a humiliating device called the "hitching post" and the revived chain gang. Other cases of this period won improved rights for immigrants, resulting in the state giving driver's license tests in eight different languages, and free provision of medically necessary transportation for Medicaid patients.
In 1994, a new Klanwatch offshoot, the Militia Task Force, was formed, and the organization's intelligence-gathering operations were later merged to create the Intelligence Project. It would monitor a fluctuating number of about 800 hate groups, with the quarterly Intelligence Report mailed out to 60,000 law enforcement agencies.
In 1996, cofounder Joseph Levin moved back to Montgomery to take the post of chief executive officer of the organization. By now, the SPLJ's endowment totaled $68 million, and it had a budget of more than $7 million a year. It was receiving contributions from some 300,000 supporters.
A 1996 SPLC lawsuit against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and several related organizations and individuals resulted in the highest judgment ever against a hate group. After a 100-year old black church was burned to the ground as part of a string of similar arson fires, the SPLC sued the groups thought to be responsible, and in 1998 won a $37.8 million judgment, which was later reduced to $21.5 million by a judge. The defendants were forced to give up their land and headquarters, which effectively killed off the Christian Knights organization. Like other such judgments, the victims received only a small portion of the total awarded, as most Klan groups had little in the way of assets.
In 1998, the SPLC sued on behalf of a black homeless teenager who had been denied admission to two Alabama high schools. Shortly after the suit was filed, she was admitted, and the state Board of Education later agreed to abide by the federal McKinney Act requiring educational access for homeless children.
In 2000, the SPLC won a $6.3 million judgment against Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations that resulted in the loss of their 20-acre compound in Idaho. It was later turned into a park by the plaintiffs, whose car had been shot at from the compound in 1998.
The year 2000 also saw the SPLC move into a new highly secure six-story headquarters beside the Civil Rights Memorial. This facility would house its staff of 70 and provide room for growth. The SPLC's endowment now stood at $120 million, and during the year it took in $44 million in fundraising and investment income and spent $13 million on operations.
In November 2000, the organization and Dees were profiled in a highly critical article in Harper's magazine. The writer of the article echoed comments made over the years by other critics: the firm's emphasis on fundraising well beyond its current needs, its relatively small percentage of black employees, and the reputed unhappiness of many who worked there were all touched on, with some calling Dees the "televangelist" of the civil rights movement. He responded that many of the complaints had been made by disgruntled former employees and that the endowment was necessary to keep the organization positioned for long term survival.
SPLC lawsuits of the early 2000s helped secure immigrant children the right to counsel in deportation hearings and further improved healthcare and living conditions for prisoners. Another resulted in the removal of a two-and-a-half ton monument displaying the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state's judicial building.
In 2003, Levin stepped down from the SPLC's top post and became president emeritus. J. Richard Cohen would serve as president and CEO, with San Diego attorney James McElroy taking the role of board chair. The same year saw a new suit filed against an anti-immigrant paramilitary group called Ranch Rescue, which had allegedly captured a group of illegal Salvadorean immigrants, held them hostage, and terrorized them. The following year, a new unit, the Immigrant Justice Project, was founded to help protect the rights of immigrants in nine southern states.
In August 2005, the Ranch Rescue case was decided in favor of the immigrants, who were awarded financial settlements from several of their attackers, as well as the 70-acre Camp Thunderbird, the group's headquarters. The year also saw a new Civil Rights Memorial visitor center added that featured in-depth information about those honored there.
After more than 30 years of fighting for the rights of the oppressed, the Southern Poverty Law Center continued to seek justice for Americans who otherwise would have no voice. The organization had helped secure improvements in rights for minorities, prisoners, children, and immigrants, as well as bringing some of the country's most violent hate groups to their knees. The battle was far from over, however, and the organization continued to take on new cases in its quest for justice.
www.tolerance.org; Intelligence Project; Immigrant Justice Project.
Brinkley, Douglas, "Fighting the Good Fight," New Orleans Times-Picayune , June 9, 1996, p. E7.
Dees, Morris, and Steve Fiffer, A Season For Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees , New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.
Elliott, Stuart, "A Marketer of Civil Rights Who Has Made a Difference," The New York Times , May 15, 1991, p. D20.
"Fire Damages Alabama Center That Battles Klan," The New York Times , July 31, 1993, p. 1A.
Gannon, Julie, "We Can't Affort Not to Fight," Trial , January 1, 1997,p. 18.
Hudson, Mike, "Nurturing Justice or Cashing In?," Roanoke Times & World News , August 27, 2003, p. 1.
"Klan Must Pay $37 Million for Inciting Church Fire," The New York Times , July 25, 1998, p. A7.
London, Robb, "Sending a $12.5 Million Message to a Hate Group," The New York Times , October 26, 1990, p. B20.
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