Criticism and Scandal
The media generally accord Dees roughly the same level of respect as the late Mother Teresa. He has been the subject of a made-for-television movie, along with countless articles, and worshipful magazine profiles. Yet a rare, scathing portrait of Dees titled “The Church of Morris Dees” by left-wing author Ken Silverstein appeared in the November 2000 Harper’s magazine. Under the leadership of Dees, SPLC “spends most of its time—and money—on a relentless fundraising campaign, peddling memberships in the church of tolerance with all the zeal of a circuit rider passing the collection plate,” wrote Silverstein.
The SPLC took another hit in 2001 when JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in the leftist Nation magazine that the center was preoccupied with making money. “In 1999, it spent $2.4 million on litigation and $5.7 million on fundraising, meanwhile taking in more than $44 million—$27 million from fundraising, the rest from investments,” she wrote.
Wypijewski also criticized the center’s work on hate groups. “No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of [hate] groups than the center’s millionaire huckster, Morris Dees, who, in 1999, began a begging letter, ‘Dear Friend, The danger presented by the Klan is greater now than at any time in the past 10 years,’” she wrote. Of course, the Ku Klux Klan is a genuine hate group. It had about four million members 80 years ago when it held sway over several state legislatures. Today, however, it has withered away to maybe 3,000 members.
The SPLC seems to have steered clear of scandal in recent years, but it received plenty of bad press in the mid-1990s. In 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser published a series of investigative articles alleging improprieties, including financial mismanagement and institutionalized racism. Black former employees of the center complained that white supervisors ran it “like a plantation.” The series was a nominated finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, but Dees orchestrated a lobbying campaign to stop publication and prevent it from being considered by the Pulitzer board.
Jim Tharpe, then managing editor of the Advertiser, described his SPLC-related adventures at a Nieman Foundation for Journalism panel discussion held at Harvard University in May 1999. According to Tharpe, SPLC deployed what is typically considered a corporate public relations weapon to prevent the investigation. It threatened what has come in recent years to be known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP action. Such suits are calculated to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense unless they withdraw their criticism.
“These guys threatened us with a lawsuit from the moment we asked to look at their financial records,” Tharpe said, according to a transcript of the talk provided on the Nieman Foundation’s website.
Reporters found the center had accumulated a huge surplus. “It was $50-something million at that time; it’s now approaching $100 million, but they’ve never spent more than 31% of the money they were bringing in on programs, and sometimes they spent as little as 18%. Most nonprofits spend about 75% on programs,” Tharpe said. SPLC donors had no idea how financially secure the center was, he said. “The charity watchdog groups, the few that are in existence, had consistently criticized the center, even though nobody had reported that.”
Reporters also uncovered that what is arguably the nation’s wealthiest civil rights group—which contends that racism pervades all of American society—had no blacks in top management positions. “Twelve out of the 13 black current and former employees we contacted cited racism at the center, which was a shocker to me. As of 1995, the center had hired only two black attorneys in its entire history,” Tharpe said.
Tharpe’s team also uncovered what he called “questionable fundraising tactics.” The SPLC handled the case of Michael Donald, a young black man who was brutally murdered in Mobile by Klansmen in 1981. After the perpetrators were convicted, the center filed suit against the KKK organization to which they belonged and secured a $7-million judgment, Tharpe explained.
“The problem was the people who killed this kid didn’t have any money. What they really got out of it was a $51,000 building that went to the mother of Michael Donald. What the center got and what we reported was they raised $9 million in two years using the Donald case, including a mailing with the body of Michael Donald as part of it. The top center officials, I think the top three, got $350,000 in salaries during that time, and Morris got a movie out of it, a TV movie of the week.”
Defining 'Hate Group'
The SPLC frequently smears groups it disagrees with as “racist.”
Although the SPLC’s list of hate groups includes groups that are based on racial hatred such as the Ku Klux Klan and the black separatist groups New Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam, which is headed by anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, it lists other groups whose claim to the dishonor is more dubious.
The SPLC accuses the American Enterprise Institute, an influential conservative think tank, of links to racism, in part because it has employed a well-known conservative intellectual, writer Dinesh D’Souza, as its John M. Olin Fellow. AEI is part of “an array of right-wing foundations and think tanks [that] support efforts to make bigoted and discredited ideas respectable,” noted the summer 2003 issue of Intelligence Report, a center magazine. D’Souza is a scholar “whose views are seen by many as bigoted or even racist,” the article stated. But why attack D’Souza, a dark-skinned immigrant to the U.S. from India? Could it be because the acclaimed author has made powerful attacks on the kind of racial alarmism that is the SPLC’s bread and butter?
In The End of Racism (1995), D’Souza argued that “virtually all contemporary liberal assumptions about the origin of racism, its historical significance, its contemporary effects, and what to do about it are wrong.” D’Souza also pilloried opportunistic race-baiters. “It is the civil rights industry that now has a vested interest in the persistence of the ghetto, because the miseries of poor blacks are the best advertisement for continuing programs of racial preference and set-asides,” D’Souza wrote.
And then there are all those Nazis. According to a recent edition of Intelligence Report, admirers of the Third Reich have infiltrated the U.S. armed services: “Neo-Nazis ‘stretch across all branches of service, they are linking up across the branches once they’re inside, and they are hard-core,’ Department of Defense gang detective Scott Barfield told the Intelligence Report. ‘We’ve got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad,’ he added. ‘That’s a problem.’”
Accompanying the article, “A Few Bad Men,” by David Holthouse, is a painting of a row of helmeted U.S. soldiers in uniform with their arms raised in a Nazi salute. Since America is deeply racist, according to the SPLC, it only follows that its military must be racist as well.
A September smear of a politician who takes a hard line on immigration illustrates the SPLC’s standard operating procedure for dealing with those hostile to its open-borders agenda.
After Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a Republican who favors tougher immigration policies, addressed a Columbia, S.C., event that its organizer noted was open to all, the SPLC falsely characterized the event as being sponsored by the League of the South. The center considers that obscure group to be a “neo-Confederate,” “white nationalist” hate group.
Following Tancredo’s speech, a self-serving report titled “Congressman addresses hate group,” appeared on the SPLC’s website, creating the impression that the event was an official League of the South event. But a Denver Post report from September 13 quoted Garland McCoy, head of an activist group called Americans Have Had Enough, saying his group hosted the event, which he said anyone was free to attend.
The SPLC report also marveled at how Tancredo could give a speech “from behind a podium draped in a Confederate battle flag,” and with a portrait of Robert E. Lee in plain sight. However, Tancredo delivered his speech at the South Carolina State Museum, which has a permanent Confederate Army exhibit. Is it surprising that Confederate paraphernalia was present?
The center has also gone after the Minuteman Project, which seeks to monitor illegal border crossings into the U.S. from Mexico. The Minuteman group has a broad base of support among conservatives and throughout the nation as a whole, but was labeled racist last year by the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. It may take some intellectual toughness to insist that the nation has the right to decide who may or may not cross its borders, but surely it’s not hate.
But Morris Dees doesn’t see it that way. He sees all opposition to immigration as a symptom of hate. When, in 2004, a slate of anti-immigration candidates sought election to the Sierra Club, a prominent environmentalist group, Dees offered himself as an alternative candidate, urging his fellow club members to “vote against the greening of hate.” The club had long been on record as favoring a stable U.S. population in order to reduce alleged strains on the environment. According to Dees’s twisted reasoning, doesn’t this mean the club was already a bastion of hate?
A disinterested observer might conclude that Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center are irrelevant activists left over from the 1960s, hangers-on to memories of past civil rights campaigns. They trudge on, enamored of their own propaganda.
Richard Samp, chi