Burning Down the Church of Tolerance

Measured financially, it's the largest civil-rights organization in the country, taking in over $44 million last year alone. Still, you might never have heard of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPL

Measured financially, it's the largest civil-rights organization in the country, taking in over $44 million last year alone. Still, you might never have heard of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala.

It was founded in 1971 by Joseph J. Levin Jr. and Morris Dees, two lawyers with a shared concern about racial injustice. Its first president was civil-rights activist Julian Bond.

Levin is now SPLC president, while Dees is chief trial counsel and chair of the executive committee. But it is Dees who is the visible moving force of the center, effectively functioning as director. It is Dees who was the subject of a movie on NBC in 1991 and who was played by Wayne Rogers (for their resemblance) in the feature film Ghosts of Mississippi in 1996. It is Dees who has already published his autobiography, A Season for Justice, and authored two other books, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat, and Hate on Trial: the Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi.

And it was Dees to whom I referred in 1997, when I took the name the Morris DeeTourné Brigade to distribute on Fountain Square homemade viewing devices shaped like KKK hoods which, when used to observe the Klan's kross, would make it appear as a swastika. Dees has been a hero to me, as he has to countless others around the country.

He also has been a target.

In 1984 an ultra-violent neo-Nazi group called the Order, which had murdered Jewish talk-radio host Alan Berg in Denver, placed Dees next on their hit list. A year earlier, members of the Ku Klux Klan firebombed the SPLC's office in an attempt to destroy evidence for a major lawsuit against them. Four times since 1987, Klansmen or militia members have been sentenced to prison for conspiring to kill Dees or destroy the center — once with an anti-tank missile, once with hand grenades and twice with bombs.

Why is he so hated by racist and neo-Nazi extremists? Because he has taken them on and often beaten them. In 1981 the center launched Klanwatch and in 1994 the Militia Task Force, which monitor and gather information on white-supremacist, neo-Nazi and "Patriot" movement groups, feeding this information to law-enforcement agencies, the media and SPLC members.

Center attorneys, usually led by Dees, have sued hate groups for the violent actions of their members, financially crippling the organizations. In one instance — a $7 million verdict against a Klan group, awarded to the mother of a young black man lynched by one of its members — the decision put the group out of business and deeded its headquarters to the victim's mother. In September, Dees won a similar case against the Aryan Nations in Idaho, with an award of $6.3 million, prompting a California Aryan Nations leader to say, "Morris Dees, you're going to die ... We will see the day when there is not one Jew left in America, and there will be nothing but white people here."

The center runs a nine-year-old educational project called Teaching Tolerance, intended to help teachers foster respect and understanding. The program includes Teaching Tolerance magazine, two handbooks and three different teaching kits, of which nearly 300,000 have been distributed to schools and community organizations free of charge. The publications and kits have won national awards (including an Oscar for Best Short Documentary for the video A Time for Justice), and the project has won praise from many, including Newsweek, Bill Moyers, Barbara Jordan and the President's Initiative on Race.

Most recently Dees has brought SPLC resources to bear on the growing neo-Confederate movement, gathering intelligence to publicize its white-supremacist ties. Dees brings a crusader's zeal to his efforts to eradicate the Klan and right-wing extremist groups, using the law as a sword to sever their financial arteries.

In the process, he has won nearly universal acclaim for himself and the center.

A four-page article in November's Harper's Magazine might change all that. The article, "The Church of Morris Dees" by contributing editor Ken Silverstein, is a scathing, frontal attack accusing Dees of hucksterish hustling, shameless self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. Silverstein charts Dees' early years as a direct-mail salesman (recognized by a 1998 induction into the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame).

Dees' early law partner, Millard Fuller, says of those years, "We were not particular about how we did it, we just wanted to be independently rich." Fuller sold out to Dees in 1965, and later started Habitat for Humanity. Dees bought a 200-acre estate with stables, tennis courts and pool. Last year Dees' compensation from SPLC was $273,000, more than nearly any other head of an advocacy group in the United States, according to Silverstein.

In 1989 the center built a new headquarters and plaza, dedicating the Civil Rights Memorial, commissioned from Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Just a decade later, a new six-story headquarters began construction across the street, dwarfing the current offices. Some local pundits have dubbed it the "Palace of Poverty."

An SPLC member and contributor since the 1980s, I was rather taken aback to learn of the kind of money the Center has amassed. Of the $44 million taken in last year — $27 million from solicitations and $17 million from investments — Silverstein claims only $13 million was spent on civil-rights programs. He says the center spent $5.76 million on fund-raising last year — double what it spent on legal services for victims of civil-rights abuses. Current treasury reserves total $120 million. The American Institute of Philanthropy, estimating SPLC could operate nearly five years without taking in another cent, gives the center one of the worst ratings of any group it monitors.

In its early years, the center devoted much of its efforts to suing to desegregate racist institutions and defending prisoners facing capital punishment. According to Millard Farmer, a renowned anti-death penalty lawyer and former Dees associate, the center moved away from such cases so as not to deter potential contributors. In 1986 virtually the entire legal staff resigned, protesting the failure to sufficiently address issues such as homelessness, voter registration and affirmative action, which they considered more vital to the Southern Poverty Law Center than taking on the Klan.

"The Jim and Tammy Faye Baker of the civil-rights movement," is how Farmer refers to Dees, decrying his visibility and constant appeals for more contributions, "though I don't mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye." Another former associate says programs are calculated to exploit "black pain and white guilt." Dees has found a formula which activates Northern white liberal funding, playing on fear through high-profile lawsuits against the KKK and other potentially violent hate groups, while the Klan is estimated to have fallen to a membership nationally of a mere 2,000 (10 percent of which are estimated to be federal informants) and most violent hate crimes are perpetrated by "lone wolves" rather than organized groups.

Silverstein charges it's a programming formula producing maximum donations with minimal assistance to impoverished minorities.

Additionally, Silverstein raises concerns about the center's Intelligence Project tactics, "spying on private citizens who belong to hate groups:" sharing its files with law-enforcement agencies, and suing ... the groups for crimes committed independently by their members — a practice that ... should give civil libertarians pause." He also charges the Teaching Tolerance project fails to get bang for the buck, spending very little of its educational budget on education, classifying nearly half of the fund-raising letters it sends out annually as educational. According to tax documents, of $10.8 million reported spent on education in 1999, $6.4 million was spent on solicitations and stamps.

SPLC public-relations director Mark Potok told me the attack on the center is particularly damaging in that it appears in a respected national magazine like Harper's, whose readership he called "our natural constituency." Potok largely dismissed the Silverstein article, saying it was essentially the same as a series of articles published 10 years earlier by the Montgomery Advertiser, and refuted at the time. A few days later, I spoke briefly to Dees, following a lecture he gave at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He dismissed the article, too, saying Silverstein had essentially rewritten an article he'd published five years earlier (suggesting Silverstein has an ax to grind) and the center had issued a 20-page refutation of the earlier piece, which was being updated to respond to the Harper's article.

Both Potok and Dees said they believed Harper's to be nearing bankruptcy, in answer to the question of why they would have printed Silverstein's piece (the inference being Harper's is desperate for sales).

Dees said until you've walked in his shoes, with the constant threat of being gunned down, you can't have his perspective (which I assume to be a given).

Coincidentally, within three days of the Harper's publishing, I received four other communications from the center: the SPLC Report newspaper and a glossy magazine called the Intelligence Report (both with accompanying contribution forms); a booklet titled 101 Tools for Tolerance; and a report titled "Why Your Center Needs Extra Security," detailing threats against the center and Dees and requesting a "special tax-deductible gift ... to help the center install and maintain security systems to protect its personnel and new offices," including an itemized budget for "security needs for the coming year" totaling about $1.4 million, nearly half of which are permanent constructions or installations. Why these weren't part of the original construction costs is not explained. Neither is any mention made of already having nearly 100 times this amount on hand.

It's disappointing to have become so cynical, and just at the time for the elections. So maybe Morris Dees is no Ralph Nader; but there is an accusatory description of him, in a letter from Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in Atlanta (which handles several dozen death-penalty cases annually), which could have been sent to another of the presidential candidates.

"You are a fraud and a con man," Bright wrote Dees in 1996, and listed among his reasons for labeling him such, "your failure to respond to the most desperate needs of the poor and powerless despite your millions upon millions [of dollars contributed], your fund-raising techniques, the fact that you spend so much, accomplish so little, and promote yourself so shamelessly." So far, it's an accusation which doesn't seem to have stuck to Dees any better than it has to George W.

I hope you voted. As for me, I filled out an absentee ballot and left the country for awhile.

CONTACT WILLIAM MESSER: [email protected]

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