Home inSight The Southern Poverty Law Center—A Reliably Dubious Source

The Southern Poverty Law Center—A Reliably Dubious Source

Eric Rozenman
SPLC headquarters.

Journalists and academics often rely uncritically on the Southern Poverty Law Center as a source of information about hate groups and racism in the United States, particularly bigotry said to stem from the far right. For example:

The Washington Post, in a Sept. 2, 2017 article headlined “Federal government has long ignored white supremacist threats, critics say,” featured an SPLC official: “‘The federal government has taken their [Sic.] eye off the ball, and it has allowed the far right to fester and grow for decades,’ said Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and runs its Hatewatch blog. ‘They are a real threat that has been underestimated.’”

The report included no background on the SPLC that might help readers evaluate the group’s claims.

In a March 3 dispatch headlined “College students protest speaker branded white nationalist,” the Associated Press likewise transmitted the center’s viewpoint:

“Speaker Charles Murray wrote ‘The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life’ and ‘Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.’ The Southern Poverty Law Center considers him a white nationalist who uses ‘racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.’”

Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a prolific researcher and writer, is one of the country’s more prominent political scientists. AP reported SPLC’s smear without any due diligence of its own about either the scholar or the center.

Politico Magazine, in its July/August 2017 issue, offered a more detailed look at the center. “Letter from Montgomery: Has a Civil Rights Stalwart Lost its Way?” by Ben Schreckinger, noted that “since 1971, the SPLC has fought racial discrimination in the South and established itself as the nation’s most prominent hate-group watchdog, most notably winning legal fights that put some of the last nails in the coffin of the Ku Klux Klan.” But, “it has also built itself into a civil rights behemoth with a glossy headquarters and a nine-figure endowment, inviting charges that it oversells the threats posed by Klansmen and neo-Nazis to keep donations flowing ….”

SPLC in the Trump era

For Morris Dees and the organization he founded, “the election of Donald Trump [as president] has vaulted the SPLC back into the center of the national conversation, giving the group the kind of potent foil it hasn’t had since the Klan,” the center-left Politico said. “Suddenly the SPLC, whose biggest fights seemed to be behind it, is all over the news—warning of an increase in hate crimes, publishing sleek reports about anti-Muslim extremists and taking the leaders of the alt-right to court,” adding dozens of staffers and providing legal aid to migrants facing deportation.

But as Dees “navigates the era of Trump, there are new questions  arising around a charge that has dogged the group for years: that the SPLC is overplaying its hand, becoming more of a partisan progressive hit operation than a civil rights watchdog. Critics say the group abuses its position as an arbiter of hatred by labeling legitimate players ‘hate groups’ and ‘extremists’ to keep the attention of its liberal donors and grind a political ax.”

Politico noted, among other things, SPLC labeled libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) an “extreme right-wing” candidate in 2011. Before 2016 Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson became Housing and Urban Development secretary, he had landed “among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists” on SPLC’s extremists lists, Politico reported.  The center later backtracked on Carson, a conservative African American.

The magazine quoted William Jacobson, a Cornell University law professor, criticizing the center for “using the reputation it gained long ago for fighting the Klan as a tool to bludgeon mainstream politically conservative opponents.” SPLC’s “hate group” or “extremist” designations for non-violent individuals and groups “frequently are exploited as an excuse to silence speech and speakers.”

Two months before Politico scrutinized the SPLC, The Federalist threw a right hook.   “Why do so many folks … accept the Southern Poverty Law Center as the nation’s Grand Inquisitor dictating who may speak and who must shut up? And why are its smears and caricatures so often blindly accepted at face value?”

In “12 Ways The Southern Poverty Law Center Is a Scam To Profit From Hate-Mongering” (May 17), The Federalist’s Stella Morabito said “those questions have been hanging in the air for decades. As with all vilification campaigns, the SPLC plays a dangerous and cruel game under the guise of defending victims.”

She charged that, among other things, the center’s single biggest effort is fundraising. “On the organization’s 2015 IRS 990 form it declared $10 million of direct fundraising expenses, far more than it has ever spent on legal services.” Morabito quoted Karl Zinsmeister of Philanthropy Roundtable that SPLC’s “two largest expenses are propaganda operations: creating its annual list of ‘haters’ and ‘extremists,’ and running a big effort that pushes ‘tolerance education’ through more than 400,000 public school teachers.”

Zinsmeister, creator of The Almanac of American Philanthropy, was chief domestic policy advisor for President George W. Bush from 2006 – 2009.

Overall, in 2015 SPLC raised $50 million in contributions and grants, Zinsmeister said. But the organization has “never spent more than 31 percent of the money” it raised on programs, though for most non-profits that figures is approximately 75 percent, according to an editor of the Montgomery Advertiser.

The FBI says good-bye

The Federalist, citing The Washington Examiner, reported that in 2014 “the FBI deleted the SPLC from its Web site’s list of legitimate resources on hate crimes.” But the bureau still includes the center as one of many civil rights organizations it cooperates with.

Center “hate list” designations incite violence, The Federalist charged. Notable were the 2012 shooting at the Family Research Council in Washington D.C., after SPLC designated FRC an anti-homosexual hate group and this year’s mob assault on Charles Murray and his sponsors at Middlebury College, according to the publication.

For SPLC, bigotry and hatred comes from the political right, not the left, according to “7 Things You Need To Know About the Southern Poverty Law Center,” a Sept. 8, 2016 article by Aaron Bandler on the conservative Daily Wire Web site. The center “classified the organization White Lives Matter as a hate group, but refused to apply the same classification to Black Lives Matter.”

Bandler wrote that a Washington Post report indicated White Lives Matter “appears to be filled with white supremacists and people who have ties to neo-Nazi groups, so the hate group label could very well be a perfect fit. But what about Black Lives Matter, whose members have explicitly called for dead cops, the lynching of white people, and endorse racial segregation?”

Daily Wire quoted SPLC President Richard Cohen’s blog post that “before we condemn the entire movement [Black Lives Matter] for the words of a few, we should ask ourselves whether we would also condemn the entire Republican Party for the racist words of its presumptive nominee—or for the racist rhetoric of many other politicians in the party over the course of years.” For Bandler, such selective judgments meant “the SPLC is a leftist hack advocacy group which picks and choose what standards to apply to its labels, consistently turning a blind eye to left and pro-Democrat groups and individuals while targeting, often unfairly, their enemies on the right.”

Years before, National Review’s Charles Cooke arrived at a similar conclusion. In 2011, Bandler noted, Cooke “pressed the SPLC” as to why it wasn’t tracking the Occupy Wall Street movement after an affiliated group “plotted to blow up a bridge in Cleveland.” A center representative admitted “we’re really not set up to cover the extreme left.”

Cooke reported that in covering Occupy Wall Street, he had seen “antisemitism, black nationalism, class hatred, and threats of violence; there have been rapes [at Occupy camp-ins], a few murders, and now some domestic terrorism. One would have thought that these things would be sufficient warrant for a group like the Southern Poverty Law Center to stand up and take serious note,” but that did not happen.

A falling-out with Carter’s people

A detailed look at SPLC’s fund-raising prowess, co-founder Morris Dees’ early success in direct mail marketing, and money-raising for Democratic Party presidential candidates George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 appeared on the conservative American Thinker Web site on Aug. 20, 2012.

By Rosslyn Smith, “Southern Poverty Law Center’s Lucrative ‘Hate Group’ Label” noted Dees’ thwarted desire to become President Carter’s attorney general. “After Carter left office, spokesman Jody Powell made no bones about his disgust with Dees and the use of appeals in SPLC mailings that were intentionally designed to play up the stereotypes ‘ignorant Yankee contributors’ had about Southerners.”

Smith observed that within two decades of the center’s founding, Dees “was among the most highly compensated” advocacy group heads. He earned “much more” than leaders of “more widely-known organizations such as the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], the Children’s Defense Fund, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.”

Her American Thinker article quoted a 2000 article in the liberal Harper’s magazine, “The Church of Morris Dees,” which asserted, “today, the SPLC spends most of its time—and money—on a relentless fund-raising campaign, peddling memberships in the church of tolerance with all the zeal of a circuit rider passing the collection plate.”

In 2007, Smith wrote, Atlanta civil rights lawyer Stephen Bright turned down the University of Alabama’s invitation to present its Morris Dees Justice Award. He did so, he asserted to Dean Kenneth Randall, because “Morris Dees is a con man and fraud.” Bright cited the Harper’s article, the Montgomery Advertiser’s “Charity of Riches” series and other information to support his charge.

Is SPLC a reliable source on bigotry and hatred in the United States, a money-raising machine, or combination of both? Does it rigorously define and uncompromisingly expose prejudiced individuals and groups, or conflate them with the center’s political opponents?

Due diligence by journalists seems to be required.