Southern Poverty Law Center

2012-09-06 22:33:17

The Southern Poverty Law Center (the Center) is a civil rights and educational organization. Founded in 1969 by Morris Seligman Dees, Jr., and Joseph L. Levin, Jr., as a small civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Alabama, the Center evolved from the law firm and became incorporated as a nonprofit legal and educational foundation in 1971. The Center has since become an internationally recognized legal, educational, and intelligence-gathering group famous for its legal victories against white supremacist groups, tolerance education programs, and investigations of hate groups. When the Center was formally incorporated in 1971, Dees was initially named its chief counsel and executive director, and Levin became the legal director. Julian Bond, formerly of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and now Chairman of the Board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), became the first president of the Center until 1979. Dees’s title later changed to chief trial counsel, the position he continues to hold. With J. Richard Cohen now serving as the Center’s president, Levin’s title is president emeritus, whereas Bond is a member of the Center’s Board of Directors.

Southern Poverty Law CenterUsing court challenges as its chief and primary weapon, the Center since its founding has amassed a series of significant legal victories, some at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Center’s legal department files civil suits on behalf of anyone that has been a victim of any form of discrimination, but particularly goes after white supremacist organizations by using tort law legal principles that make organizations and their leaders liable for misdeeds of their agents or representatives called vicarious liability. The Center also provides help to other lawyers and various advocacy groups involved in Capital Punishment defense, civil rights, and poverty cases. Partly in response to the reemergence of Ku Klux Klan and affiliated groups in the late 1970s to early 1980s, and partly because of the limited constitutional reach of U.S. law enforcement agencies (as a result of laws enacted because of J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged abuses at the FBI), the Center began its ‘‘Klanwatch’’ project in 1981 and started investigating and tracking the activities of such groups. Although many of the Center’s staff initially disagreed with Dees (the project’s chief architect) on its establishment, the Center is now well recognized partly because of this project (now called the ‘‘Intelligence Project’’). The Center’s Intelligence Project publishes the Intelligence Report, a quarterly magazine, detailing activities among alleged hate groups and extremist organizations. The Intelligence Report is distributed to law enforcement agencies, the media, and the public. The Report is credited with helping obtain criminal convictions in several hate crime cases.

In 1991, the Center created an educational program called ‘‘Teaching Tolerance,’’ and according to its website, ‘‘to help K–12 teachers foster respect and understanding in the classroom.’’ Teaching Tolerance provides information on the history of the civil rights movement and anti-bias resources to teachers and parents. Under this program, multimedia kits are provided free to schools and community groups. In 2001, the Center launched an online destination,, to provide additional support for its Teaching Tolerance program. On this interactive website, information on understanding America’s multiculturalism, tolerating differences among different social groups, fighting hate on campus, and a host of topics such as school mascots with Native American names and the Confederate flag are extensively provided. The website contains information on how concerned individuals and organizations can work for unity in their communities. It also provides information for parents encouraging them to embrace multiculturalism in raising their children, urging them to live in integrated neighborhoods, and advising them to use culturally sensitive language.

Deciding to memorialize those killed during the Civil Rights Movement, the Center in 1989 commissioned Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial, to design a Civil Rights Memorial that stands at a plaza facing the Center’s building in Montgomery. The Memorial contains a black granite fountain with its waters flowing down over the words that Martin Luther King, Jr., had spoken at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967 (a year before his assassination)—‘‘until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a might stream.’’ The waters then roll over some of the names of those that died in the civil rights struggle. The Memorial is a popular place of attraction in Montgomery, drawing many visitors from around the world. The Center plans to add a new Civil Rights Memorial Center in 2005. Since its formal incorporation, the Center primarily funds its operations from contributions solicited from individuals through direct mail marketing, sometimes using graphic images from results of violent hate crimes in its solicitation letters.

Legal Fights

On the legal front, both Dees and Levin had handled several probono cases before the Center’s incorporation. In 1969, Dees on behalf of two African- American cousins, and with the help of Fred D. Gray (the African-American attorney who represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955), filed a class action suit against the Montgomery branch of the YMCA to integrate the all-white facility (Smith v. YMCA, 1972). Although the case was highly unpopular in Montgomery’s white communities, the YMCA was found to have violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteen Amendment. The YMCA was ordered to integrate all its facilities.

In other cases before the Center’s formal incorporation, Dees and Levin represented a high school English teacher dismissed for teaching a Kurt Vonnegut story, ‘‘Welcome to the Monkey House’’; she was subsequently reinstated. They defended a servicewoman denied equal pay and other benefits received by her male counterparts, the Defense Department was ordered to change its discriminatory regulations. The case, Frontero v. Richardson (1973), reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court wherein the Court decided that the particular Air Force regulation was discriminatory and violated the Fifth Amendment guaranteeing due process under the law. The case is regarded as the first successful sex discrimination lawsuit against the federal government. Dees and Levin also filed a class action suit against the Montgomery Advertiser for its refusal to print a photo and wedding announcement of an African-American couple in the newspaper’s society pages on Sundays instead of on Thursdays in the ‘‘negro editions.’’ Arguing that the civil rights statutes did not cover such discrimination, the Court ruled for the newspaper. Nonetheless, the newspaper was shamed into changing its policy.

After the Center’s incorporation, three African- American men were accused of raping a white woman in Tarboro, North Carolina, in 1973. They were found guilty and sentenced to death. At Dees’s behest, the Center became involved in the case after the men were sentenced. Using the Center’s massive resources, Dees hired local counsels, paid for expensive exhibits, and got the North Carolina Supreme Court to order a new trial because of prosecutor’s prejudicial conduct. Although the men later agreed to plea nolo contendere to a six-year sentence for assault with intent to rape, Dees negotiated for them to be released immediately, less than two years after they were sentenced to death.

The Center, as well as Dees, first attracted national attention in 1974 as a result of another case involving an African-American woman inmate accused of murdering her white jailer in North Carolina. The prosecutor alleged that the inmate, Joan Little, on August 27, 1974, lured the jailer, Clarence Alligood, into her cell and killed him in cold blood with an ice pick that she had stolen from him earlier on the day of the incident. Little claimed that Alligood had tried to rape her and in her struggle to fend him off and flee, hit him with the ice pick that he had brought to her jail to use in his sexual attack. Little fled and Alligood was found dead in Little’s cell with his pants off. Little was later captured and indicted by the grand jury for first-degree murder. Given the racial and sexual overtones of the case and after a New York Times article on the case on December 1, 1974, the national and overseas media picked up the story. While investigating the case, Dees interviewed one of Alligood’s colleagues, Beverly King, who later became a state witness, and obtained a statement from her. On realizing that during King’s testimony on the witness stand she contradicted what she had previously told him, Dees challenged her off the witness stand. When Dees later challenged King on the witness stand, she claimed that Dees had told her to falsely testify. Accusing Dees of subornation of perjury, the judge trying the case dismissed Dees as a defendant attorney from the case. Dees was subsequently charged with felonious subornation of perjury. Although the felony was later dropped, Dees was put off the case for good. Nonetheless, the Center continued to financially assist in Little’s defense, and she was subsequently acquitted of the murder charge in 1975.

Employing vicarious liability tort law legal principles, the Center filed a civil suit on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald (Beulah Mae Donald, as Executor of the Estate of Michael Donald, Deceased v. United Klans of America et al., 1984), mother of Michael Donald who was brutally murdered by two members of the United Klans of America. In 1981, in retaliation for the decision of a mixed jury to acquit an African- American man accused of killing a white man, two members of the United Klans of America, James Knowles and Henry Hays, picked up Michael Donald off a street in Mobile, Alabama, beat him, slit his throat, and hung him on a tree. It turned out that the Klansmen were acting at the urging of Bennie Jack Hays, the South Alabama Grand Titan of the Klan group, which was nationally led by Robert Shelton, its Imperial Wizard. In exchange for a life sentence, James Knowles turned state witness and testified against his co-murderer, Henry Hays. Hays was found guilty and sentenced to death. Notably, Hays was later executed on June 6, 1997, the first white to be put to death for killing an African American in Alabama since early twentieth century.

Not satisfied with the punishment for the two killers, the Center decided to sue the Klan group. Arguing that the two killers and Bennie Hays were acting as conspiratorial agents to further the history of Klan violence, the Center filed a suit on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald seeking $10 million in damages against the men, the United Klans of America, and Robert Shelton, the group’s national leader. To the Klan’s surprise, a federal jury found the defendants liable and awarded $7 million in damages. Because the Klan group could not provide the damage amount, all its assets (primarily its national headquarters) were sold and transferred to the Donald family. The judgment effectively bankrupted the United Klans of America and put it out of operations while Beulah Mae Donald used the money collected from the sale of the group’s assets to buy a new house. During the course of its investigation, the Center also discovered new evidence that was used to obtain indictments against Frank Cox, a third man present during Donald’s murder, and Bennie Hays. Cox was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, and Hays died before he could be tried.

Typical of the class action suits that theCenterwould become famous for filing is the case against the Klan in 1987 (McKinney, et al. v. Southern White Knights et al., 1987). In February 1987, members of white supremacist groups the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Southern White Knights attacked African-American and white peaceful demonstrators honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Forsyth County, Georgia. The Center on behalf of scores of plaintiffs filed a class action against the white supremacist groups. In 1989, the federal court awarded the plaintiffs $940,000, ordered all the assets and trademarks of the Invisible Empire turned over to the plaintiffs, and asked the Klan group to destroy its membership and publication subscription lists containing approximately 10,000 names. In addition, the court ordered all the Invisible Empire’s non-cash assets turned over to the plaintiffs be assigned to a branch of the NAACP and asked the group’s leaders to attend a class on race relations. By 1994, the Southern White Knights was equally forced by the court to destroy its membership lists.

Relying on the same vicarious liability law principles used in the Donald case, the Center, joined by the Anti-Defamation League, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and some of its leaders in 1989 on behalf of the family of Mulugeta Seraw (Berhanu v. Metzger, 1990). Seraw was a twenty-seven-year-old Ethiopian-born black student who was beaten to death in Portland, Oregon, by three members of East Side White Pride, a local group of skinheads that advocated Anti-Semitism and racial separatism. Seraw was spotted being dropped off by two friends. The skinheads attacked Seraw and his friends, repeatedly hit Seraw on his head with a baseball bat. Seraw was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly afterward. As a result of plea bargains, the killers received ten to twenty years’ jail sentences each. Nonetheless, the Center decided to institute a civil suit against the convicted killers, Thomas Metzger, the president of WAR, and other leaders of the group. During the civil trial, the Center produced a surprise witness, David Mazella, a WAR member, persuaded by Dees to testify against the skinheads. Mazella testified to being a ‘‘direct link’’ between the local skinhead group and WAR. Claiming that he was 1,200 miles away from the place the murder took place and that the only thing he did was to exercise his First Amendment right of free speech, Metzger argued that he was not responsible for Seraw’s death. Rejecting Metzger’s argument, the jury returned a verdict of $12.5 million in damages for Seraw’s family. In an amicus curiae brief, the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union maintained that the civil suit might have violated Metzger’s First Amendment rights. The jury rejected the argument. The defendants appealed the verdict all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied certiorari.

In 1993, the Center successfully challenged the flying of the Confederate battle flag by the Alabama governor over the State Capitol. Relying on old statute authorizing the flying only of the U.S. and Alabama flags, the Center forced the state to remove the confederate flag. The Center also convinced the state to abandon the reintroduction of Chain Gangs enacted by the state governor in 1995. Whereas the Center continues to litigate various cases on behalf of people who have suffered some form of racial or other form of injustice, it remains popular for instituting civil suits against alleged hate and white supremacist groups.

The History of Morris Dees

Chronicling the history and work of the Center without highlighting Morris Dees makes its story incomplete. Winner of various humanitarian and legal awards but despised (and at various times targeted for assassination) by white supremacist organizations and its leaders, Dees’s personal story is intertwined with the Center’s history and achievements. Born on December 16, 1936, in Shorter, Alabama, to farmers, Dees grew up in the segregated South. At an early age, Dees decided that he was going to make himself more financially secure than his parents did for themselves. Thus, by the time he graduated from high school, he had engaged in different activities such as newspaper delivery and farming to earn money. Dees was particularly good at farming, and he was named the Star Farmer of Alabama by the Alabama Future Farmers of America in 1955. Although Dees grew up in a segregated environment, his parents, by his recollections, were never hostile to African Americans. In his autobiography, A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story, Dees recounted an incident when he was five years old and refused to get off a mule he was riding. Wilson, an African-American field hand, had gently prodded Dees to get off the mule. Dees responded, ‘‘You black nigger, you can’t tell me what to do.’’ Unknown to Dees, his father happened to be standing behind the mule. Dees’s father gave Dees his first whipping in his life and warned him never to call anyone a ‘‘black nigger,’’ while ordering him to obey Wilson.

Dees graduated from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1958 despite getting married right before he graduated from high school in 1952 and having two children with his first wife during his college years. Dees later graduated from the University of Alabama law school in 1960. While in college, he and Millard Fuller, a college and law school colleague, established a birthday-cake delivery business that they expanded to a business selling fundraising products to clubs and organizations. By the time Dees and Fuller finished law school, they were on their way to becoming wealthy men.

In 1960, Dees and Fuller formed a law partnership in Montgomery, Alabama, while still pursuing various business interests. Because their business interests were flourishing, they did not put that much time into their law practice. In 1963, Dees and Fuller compiled and published Favorite Recipes of Home Economics Teachers, which became a popular cookbook. They later established a mail order and book publishing business, Fuller & Dees Marketing Group, which turned out to be one of the largest and most successful publishing companies in the South. Fuller sold out his interest in the business to Dees in 1964 for $1 million, donated most of his profits to charities, and later founded Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds housing for the poor. As he recounted in his autobiography, while stranded in a Cincinnati airport in 1967, Dees had an epiphany to become more involved in civil rights. As a result of his epiphany, Dees increasingly devoted his time to practicing civil rights law and sold the book publishing company to Times Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, in 1969.

It was after the sale of the business that Dees teamed up with Joseph Levin, Jr., to form a civil rights law firm that later became the Center. Dees has also been actively involved in politics. He was the finance director for the George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, helping to raise huge amounts of money from small donors. Dees later served on President Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign as national finance director, and on Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign as national finance chairman.

As a result of Dees’s efforts leading the Center’s court victories against hate groups, Dees became the subject of a made-for-television movie, Line of Fire: the Morris Dees Story, which aired on NBC on January 21, 1991. He has also been a recipient of numerous death threats and was reportedly listed at one time as number one on the hit list of the hate group that killed Denver talk show host Alan Berg, an antibigotry advocate.

Criticisms of the Center

The Center’s history is not without controversy, with most centering on Dees’s salesmanship and the Center’s fundraising tactics. In a highly publicized story in the Montgomery Advertiser in 1994, the newspaper, after a two-year investigation, alleged that the Center had not hired enough African Americans in top and leadership positions, that Dees stacked the Center’s board with his close friends, and that Dees had offended the civil rights community by lobbying for the appointment of a prodeath penalty federal judge. Among other claims, the Montgomery Advertiser complained that during the 1984 to 1994 ten-year period, the Center had raised close to $62 million in contributions but spent only $21 million on its poverty and discrimination fighting activities, and that sometimes the Center never spent more than 20 percent on its programs, whereas many nonprofit organizations spent as much as 75 percent on programs. However, the newspaper was unable to cite any specific instance of financial impropriety.

In another article written by Ken Silverstein in Harper’s Magazine in 2000, Silverstein accused the Center of spending less time defending prisoners facing Capital Punishment and more time on ‘‘relentless fundraising campaign.’’ Referencing the Montgomery Advertiser article, Silverstein repeated the newspaper’s report that although Beulah Mae Donald ultimately netted $51,875 from the sale of United Klan of America’s assets, the Center made $9 million from fundraising activities solicitations related to the case. Other critics of the Center’s financial wealth (more than $100 million endowment) have accused the Center (and particularly Dees) of profiting from the pain of people that have suffered society’s injustices. Despite these accusations, the Center remains an influential organization in helping various government agencies track down hate groups throughout the nation.


References and Further Reading

  • Chalmers, David. Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
  • Dees, Morris with Steve Fiffer. A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story. Chicago, IL: ABA, 2001.
  • Klebanov, Diana, and Franklin L. Jonas. People’s Lawyers: Crusaders for Justice in American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2003.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Beulah Mae Donald, as Executor of the Estate of Michael Donald, Deceased v. United Klans of America et al. No. 84-0725-C-S (S.D. Ala., filed June 14, 1984)
  • Berhanu v. Metzger, No. A8911-07007, Multnomah County Circuit Court, Oregon (October 25, 1990)
  • Frontero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973)
  • McKinney et al. v. Southern White Knights et al., No. 1:87- 565-CAM (N.D. Ga., filed March 24, 1987)
  • Smith v. YMCA, 462 F.2d 634 (5th Cir. 1972)