There has long been suspicion about Morris Dee, the high profile attorney and founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser was a finalist for the Pulitzer for its reporting on ethics problems with the anti-hate group, and rumors of sexism and racism within the organization have long dogged it.
Dees was recently fired and his profile scrubbed from the SPLC’s website, a choice at least as much about the SPLC’s hiding its past as about reckoning with it. And it makes Dee look like a scapegoat. Thankfully, the SPLC has hired Tina Tchen, former chief of staff for Michelle Obama, to conduct an internal review of ongoing problems.
I appreciate the (apparently) firm, if late, concern with discrimination and a hostile workplace environment.
I’m critical, though, of SPLC critics who argue that the organization has been too focused on money making. I’m not sure why we should assume that nonprofits should always operate on shoe string budgets, that lawyers focusing on social justice should earn less than lawyers working in other fields, or that there should be an upper limit to how much funds these groups raise. Several news pieces, like this one at The New Yorker, stress that SPLC has more money in its coffers than the ACLU or the NAACP. Who cares? Some nonprofits bring in more money than others. We should make sure that all fundraisers in organizations we support are fundraising and spending ethically, but the fact that the SPLC has a $450 million budget isn’t in itself a problem. (For contrast, Harvard has an endowment of over $56 billion, and various other parts of that prestigious school have their own endowments, including others over a billion dollars. And they had to be pressured to pay their cafeteria workers a living wage.) If SPLC didn’t have a ton of money, I’d be critical of their leadership.
Above, Morris Dees, Michael Figures, and Beulah Mae Donald at a press conference after attorneys Dee and Figures represented Donald in a lawsuit against the Alabama Klan after members lynched her son. The settlement bankrupted the Klan. Dees’ Critics point out that the Klan’s numbers were already declining, with perhaps about 10,000 members across the US and the Dees used such high profile cases to boost fundraising. To them I say: What did you ever do to get rid of the KKK? And why wouldn’t the SPLC highlight their important wins in the fundraising efforts? How do you think nonprofits work? Photo by Mary Hattler for the Mobile Press-Register.
Much of the commentary I’ve read about the SPLC mocks northern liberals who think that their money is going to fight the Klan when it’s really going to pay high salaries of well-trained, highly motivated lawyers winning civil rights cases, tracking hate groups, and producing educational materials to help us learn about promoting tolerance and respect.
The sexism and racism within the organization is unacceptable. But the fact that the SPLC has a lot of money–I’m okay with that.