Southern Poverty Law Center at crossroads with ouster of founder Dees

Critics see half billion dollar nest egg and question what the money is for

This week’s abrupt firing of Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, continues to reverberate across the country.

It’s still unclear specifically why the longtime attorney was ousted by the Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit, which tracks hate groups and specializes in civil rights litigation.

But some who follow the organization’s activities say the turn of events is not surprising.

The SPLC has drawn sustained criticism for its fund-raising tactics, which some say involve exaggerating the threats posed by white supremacists and other groups. The organization also has been accused in the past of not treating black employees fairly and of allowing sexual harassment.

Already, some hate groups — often targets of SPLC scrutiny — are cheering Dees’ firing. Members of the forum on Stormfront, a neo-Nazi website, reveled in news.

“Looks like the tables just may be turning on the SPLC,” one person on the site wrote.

But the center’s supporters wonder what will happen to the SPLC’s efficacy now that its most public face is gone.

The organization “has been important for those of us who cover the KKK, white supremacists and Christian identity groups,” said Jerry Mitchell, MacArthur Fellow and founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. “Their work really played a key role for me.”

Any scandal at the organization could hurt its ability to continue research into hate groups, Mitchell said, at a time when the nation is becoming more polarized along ideological and racial lines.

The organization gave few details on the reasons it decided to part ways with Dees in its Thursday announcement. “As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world. 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,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a written statement.

Cohen also said the center planned to bring in an “outside organization to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices.”

According to a Los Angeles Times report, at least two dozen employees of the organization sent a letter to the SPLC’s board of directors and management outlining their concerns about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and racism.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution left messages with at least three board members, but none had responded late Friday.

While the organization, founded in 1971, cultivated an image as a crusader against hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, it drew its own scrutiny over the years. Most of that was centered on the fund-raising tactics of Dees, who was once a direct mail marketer.

According to publicly available tax documents filed for 2017, the SPLC’s endowment is approaching half a billion dollars.

“I have watched the relentless fund-raising efforts that were being made and the extraordinary growth of the endowment,” said Yale University law professor Stephen Bright, who also teaches at Georgia State University. “It just continues to go up. They send out these appeals for people to send money when they don’t spend anywhere near what they take in.”

April 4, 2016 - Atlanta - Morris Dees was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Price. King family members were among those laying a memorial wreath on the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, on the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. This followed a ceremony awarding the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize to Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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“They have done good things. They have given money to organizations who do good work, but the whole Morris Dees part of it has been fundraising. He is brilliant at raising money,” Bright said. “But what are they doing with it? They could have established offices in every state in the South. They could have even done more in Alabama. The whole thing is pretty problematic.”

In the early 1990s, the building for the Montgomery Advertiser, the city’s newspaper, was near the Southern Poverty Law Center. Employees from the two offices would grab beers together after work. That’s when reporters began hearing stories and complaints from those who worked at the center “that this place isn’t what it’s hyped up to be,” said Jim Tharpe, who was then managing editor of the newspaper.

Those rumblings led to the paper’s three-year investigation of the SPLC. The paper was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for its series of stories on the nonprofit. Tharpe, who is also a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor, said the accusations of misconduct surrounding Dees dismissal echo those lodged against the organization in the 1990s.

“There were allegations by black employees that they were being treated unfairly and employees were saying that the fundraising wasn’t honest,” Tharpe said. SPLC leaders “were saying they needed money when they had tons of it.”

For a time, the agency cooperated with the newspaper as it did its reporting. But when the newspaper began asking for detailed financial records beyond what was legally required for nonprofits, the SPLC stopped, Tharpe said. It was difficult to figure out how they were spending their money.

There were about five people, including Dees, at the top of the organization, Tharpe said. But many of the other employees were at intern level, he said.

“He is a brilliant marketer, and he knows how to push people’s buttons and get them to give money,” Tharpe said.

Laurence Leamer, who spent time at the center while he was researching a book, said the SPLC crossed the line in 2014.

Alongside hate groups, the organization placed former presidential candidate Ben Carson, who is the current secretary of Housing and Urban Development, on its list of extremists, particularly for his views on same-sex marriage.

“When they put Ben on the list of extremists, I called Morris Dees and said ‘How can you do that?’” said Leamer, the author of “The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan,” which retells the history of the birth of the SPLC.

The group did eventually remove Carson’s name and issued an apology.

“It started as this wonderful, idealistic organization, but the excess of money, extraordinary excess of money, has changed it,” said Leamer, who recently authored “Mar-A-Lago: Inside the gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace.”

Leamer said in the months that he spent in Alabama with Dees and the SPLC, he saw an organization more concerned with raising money at all costs than true social justice. “There is an overwhelming exploitation of these extraordinary, important issues, and nobody is daring to talk about it. I knew when I walked out of there, sooner or later, something was going to happen,” he said.

Bright agrees. “The chickens finally came home to roost,” he said. “I am more surprised that it finally came now. It must have been pretty bad that they didn’t let him resign at the age of 82, so he could have gone off into the sunset and perpetuate the myth of Morris Dees.”

Jerry Mitchell , one of the most celebrated civil rights journalists in the South, said the SPLC has “always been a place to go to find out more information.”

He worries that this week’s event will make it harder for the center to do its work.

“It’s sad and you hate to see it,” he said. “But hopefully, for their sake, maybe this is the right move to take at this time.”