Rosslyn Smith, American Thinker, August 20, 2012
Last week’s shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council (FRC) has placed the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) back into the news. The SPLC recently had placed the FRC on its list of hate groups because the SPLC claims that in its opposition to gay marriage, the FRC defames gays and lesbians.
It should be noted that the not-for-profit SPLC ostensibly began its mission to help those who had been victimized by civil rights violations by filing suits on their behalf. In recent years, the SPLC greatly expanded its definition of civil rights and hate groups to the point where any organization that opposes the left’s favored causes risks being labeled a hate group by the SPLC. It has also moved away from suing on behalf of the aggrieved to raising awareness of the presence of “hate groups.” Most of all, for the last 35 years, it has become a real fundraising dynamo.
The labeling of opposing political views as hate by the SPLC has become so egregious that at the end of a report on a solidarity march in the Swedish city of Malmö by people protesting attacks on Jews by Islamists, William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection wonders:
Update: I just noticed that Danel Greenfields’ Sultan Knish also is on SPLC’s NY hate map.
A growing consensus on the political right is to consider being labeled a hate group by the SPLC a badge of honor. I agree that it is, but I take issue with others about what is to be done. When I look at the entire history of the SPLC, I don’t think the recent trend of inflate the hate is as much about political correctness run completely amok in the age of Obama as it is about the greed and self-aggrandizement of the founder of the SPLC and the gullibility of the donor base.
Yes, mock those who increasingly conflate disapproval of policy ideas with hate. It is a silly idea. But mock even more those who continue to donate to SPLC as dupes of pious-sounding con men. Make them doubt their self-image as serious-thinking people by showing that they are being manipulated by a shameless huckster whose principal agenda has always been to become very wealthy. For if you understand that motivation, it is easy to see why the definition of hate had to be expanded to include groups that were considered very mainstream just a short time ago.
SPLC founder Morris Dees is a lawyer, but he began his career as a direct marketer, hawking everything from cookbooks to tractor seat cushions. Indeed, the SPLC was a latecomer to the civil rights movement, as many of the biggest legal and legislative battles had been won before the organization was formed in 1971.
Dees’ first law partner, Millard Fuller, had this to say of him and their legal and direct marketing business ventures in the 1960s:
Morris and I, from the first days of our partnership, shared the overriding purpose of making a pile of money. … We were not particular about how we did it. We just wanted to be independently rich. During the eight years we worked together we never wavered in that resolve.
By the mid-60s, Morris was rich. He also became deeply interested in the money side of leftist politics. The initial donor list of the SPLC consisted of those who had contributed to McGovern’s political campaign, because Dees ran that campaign’s direct mail operation and had requested the mailing list as his fee. The Southern-born Dees knew that many of the northern liberals on McGovern’s donor list would get a vicarious thrill from sending a check to the Alabama-based SPLC to fight the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists.
If appealing to some of these rather naive donors meant tarring other Southerners as racist, bigoted hicks, so be it. Dees also raised money for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and wanted to be attorney general, but he and Carter’s people had a falling out. 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 to the stereotypes “ignorant Yankee contributors” had about Southerners.
It should also be noted that Millard Fuller took a different course from his erstwhile partner’s. After he sold out to Dees, Fuller donated the money to charity and went on to found Habitat for Humanity. As contributions to the SPLC kept increasing, so did Dees’ salary. Within two decades, he was among the most highly compensated of the heads of advocacy groups, earning much more than the heads of more widely known organizations such as the ACLU, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. That something was seriously rotten at SPLC was noted along with the increases in Dees’ salary. While the SPLC promoted its pursuit of lawsuits related to civil rights, especially those challenging the imposition of the death penalty on black offenders, fundraising was pursued even more fervently. By 1989, an ecumenical guide to charitable giving described the mission of the SPLC as “the aggressive distribution of junk mail, soliciting funds for more junk mail.”
A decade later in Harper’s magazine, a feature titled “The Church of Morris Dees” noted:
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. “He’s the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement,” renowned anti- death-penalty lawyer Millard Farmer says of Dees, his former associate, “though I don’t mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye.”
The results of one of the SPLC’s most famous cases as detailed in that article certainly might lead even the most credulous donor to think the aim of the SPLC may have shifted a bit from helping victims of hate to greed and self-aggrandizement.
In 1987, Dees won a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, whose son was lynched by two Klansmen. The UKA’s total assets amounted to a warehouse whose sale netted Mrs. Donald $51,875. According to a groundbreaking series of newspaper stories in the Montgomery Advertiser, the SPLC, meanwhile, made $9 million from fund-raising solicitations featuring the case, including one containing a photo of Michael Donald’s corpse.
In what Dees must have seen as icing on the cake, his battles against the fast fading and largely judgment-proof Klan even became the subject of a 1991 made-for-TV movie that depicted him as a huge hero in the civil rights movement. Again, the movie was used to feed the all-important fundraising beast.
The year 1998 saw Dees being inducted into the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame, a move that also should have alerted the SPLC donor base that just maybe the SPLC was not quite as cash-strapped as it always represented itself in its frequent solicitations.
Dees’ reputation has long been beyond tarnished inside much of the civil rights bar. In 2007, Atlanta civil rights lawyer Stephen Bright was invited by the University of Alabama Law School to present its Morris Dees Justice Award. Here is what Bright wrote Dean Kenneth C. Randall:
I also received the law school’s invitation to the presentation of the “Morris Dees Justice Award,” which you also mentioned in your letter as one of the “great things” happening at the law school. I decline that invitation for another reason. Morris Dees is a con man and fraud, as I and others, such as U.S. Circuit Judge Cecil Poole, have observed and as has been documented by John Egerton, Harper’s, the Montgomery Advertiser in its “Charity of Riches” series, and others.
The positive contributions Dees has made to justice — most undertaken based upon calculations as to their publicity and fund raising potential — are far overshadowed by what Harper’s described as his “flagrantly misleading” solicitations for money. He has raised millions upon millions of dollars with various schemes, never mentioning that he does not need the money because he has $175 million and two “poverty palace” buildings in Montgomery. He has taken advantage of naive, well-meaning people — some of moderate or low incomes — who believe his pitches and give to his $175-million operation. He has spent most of what they have sent him to raise still more millions, pay high salaries, and promote himself. Because he spends so much on fund raising, his operation spends $30 million a year to accomplish less than what many other organizations accomplish on shoestring budgets.
The award does not recognize the work of others by associating them with Dees; it promotes Dees by associating him with the honorees. Both the law school and Skadden are diminished by being a part of another Dees scam.
None of this has ever seemed to dent the SPLC’s ability to raise money by inflating the influence of what it calls hate groups. But by the late 1980s, a different problem was starting to develop: the Klan was all but dead, and few of the organizations labeled as white supremacists had more than a handful of members.
But this didn’t stop SPLC from using such groups for their direct mailing haul of shame. Still, the original donor base was aging. So during the Clinton administration, the SPLC found Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh a handy substitute for the Klan in its fundraising, despite failures to link his actions to any of the small militia groups the SPLC had earlier identified as hate groups. Eventually that appeal also ran its course, so the SPLC needed to “inflate the hate” by identifying another group as the boogieman for a new generation of naive souls eager to depart with their money for a righteous-sounding cause.
In 2010, Ken Silverstein, the author of the 2000 Harper’s article, noted that the SPLC had found a large new target: those immigration reform groups that supported almost anything more restrictive than amnesty and de facto open borders.
For the record, I am totally opposed to CIS’s stance on immigration, as I stated at the press conference. I accepted the invitation to speak on the panel because it came from my friend Jerry Kammer, of whom I am a big admirer.
I also agreed to the invitation because, much like CIS, I feel that the Law Center is essentially a fraud and that it has a habit of casually labeling organizations as “hate groups.” (Which doesn’t mean that some of the groups it criticizes aren’t reprehensible.) In doing so, the SPLC shuts down debate, stifles free speech, and most of all, raises a pile of money, very little of which is used on behalf of poor people.
Silverstein’s good friend Kammer had this to say about Dees’ manipulative methods as he demolished the SPLC in “Immigration and the SPLC: How the Southern Poverty Law Center Invented a Smear, Served La Raza, Manipulated the Press, and Duped Its Donors.”
While Dees was raised a Southern Baptist, he suggested to some donors that he had a more diverse background. For example, in a 1985 fundraising pitch for funds to protect SPLC staff from threats of Klan violence, Dees made conspicuous use of his middle name – Seligman, which he received in honor of a family friend. A former SPLC attorney told The Progressive magazine that Dees signed letters with his middle name in mailings to zip codes that had many Jewish residents. The article was titled “How Morris Dees Got Rich Fighting the Klan.” A former SPLC employee told the Montgomery Advertiser that the donor base was “anchored by wealthy Jewish contributors on the East and West coasts.”
Turnipseed described a fundraising letter whose return envelope carried “about six different stamps.” The purpose of the ruse was to present the appearance of an organization struggling to keep going. As Turnipseed noted: “It was like they had to cobble them all together to come up with 35 cents.”
After decades of claiming in his mailings that the SPLC was itself on the verge of poverty, Dees raised a few eyebrows in 2010 when a sixty-photo spread of his objets d’art-filled home, complete with guest house, pool, and grounds, ran in his hometown newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser. As blogger Steve Sailer noted:
This shiny thing-a-mabob with the #20 on it is described as “A poolside rickshaw at the home of Morris Dees and Susan Starr in Montgomery, Ala,” because nothing screams Equality! like a fancy rickshaw.
A look at the recent numbers reported by SPLC is highly informative. With net assets of $238 million as of the close of its last fiscal year, the SPLC is among the wealthiest of civil rights and advocacy organizations. Despite this endowment, the SPLC often implies that it is on the verge of cutting back operations vital to the quest for equality and civil rights due to lack of funds. Yet it spends almost 19% of its annual budget on fundraising each year despite the fact its net assets are already an extremely healthy seven times annual expenses. Note that this 19% figure is under cost allocation rules that allow some solicitations to pass as program expenses because educational material is included with the solicitation.
Last year, the SPLC generated a surplus of $4.1 million on revenues of $38.7 million. CEO J. Richard Cohen makes $299K/year, and editor in chief of the SPLC Intelligence Report and Hatewatch blog Mark Potok makes $150K/year. Chief Trial Counsel Morris Dees, age 74, makes $305K/year. I wonder how many hours Dees spent on trial preparation compared to fundraising. The title Dees carries is Chief Trial Counsel, yet his chief bailiwick has always been direct mail marketing.
As the SPLC publicizes the names of ever more hate groups to “raise awareness” of intolerance and to tap into ever new sources of funds, its donors should keep in mind a genuine larger truth. Heightened awareness has never by itself helped the actual victims of anything, anywhere, at any time. At best, it is entirely self-referential. At its worst, it serves as a useful ploy to make a donor who hasn’t done much in the way of due diligence about an organization’s finances feel good about sending money to what appears to be a righteous cause.
The SPLC has more than mastered the exercise of raising awareness. In his 2000 article, Silverstein noted that during its then-29 years of existence, the SPLC had carefully adjusted its operations to fit the needs and self-image of its largely urban, white, and often Jewish donor base. Causes that garnered favorable early media attention but which also risked upsetting some donors, such as filing suits protesting the death penalty, were dropped, even if that meant the mass resignation of staff attorneys. Images of angry blacks and other minorities never appear in solicitations. Nor do concrete issues related to race and poverty get much attention in these appeals. Donors aren’t called on to actually fight to improve housing, improve inner-city schools, or end violence at the borders. Everything is geared to the equal-opportunity and secular sin of being intolerant of those who are different. According to Silverstein, the payoff is also always the same — the SPLC is all about making guilty white donors feel good about themselves for being understanding by writing a check to the wealthy and largely white SPLC. Actual attempts to help the oppressed and downtrodden aren’t just optional. They are almost superfluous.
This is done with a tried-and-true formula Dees learned listening to evangelical preachers as well as TV hucksters. Silverstein writes:
No faith healing or infomercial would be complete without a moving testimonial. The student from whose tears this white schoolteacher learned her lesson is identified only as a child of color. “Which race,” we are assured, “does not matter.” Nor apparently does the specific nature of “the racist acts directed at him,” nor the race of his schoolyard tormentors. All that matters, in fact, is the race of the teacher and those expiating tears. “I wept with him, feeling for once, the depth of his hurt,” she confides. “His tears washed away the film that had distorted my white perspective of the world.” Scales fallen from her eyes, what action does this schoolteacher propose? What Gandhi-like disobedience will she undertake in order to “reach real peace in the world”? She doesn’t say but instead speaks vaguely of acting out against “the pain.” In the age of Oprah and Clinton, empathy — or the confession thereof — is an end in itself.
What matters is that the targets feel they will become part of the solution by writing a check to SPLC. The comparison to Jim and Tammy Faye is really quite apt. The Bakkers always featured the power of the personal testimonial as panacea. The SPLC wants the potential donor to identify with the guilty white teacher. The idea behind Jim Bakker’s testimonials was to get potential donors to identify with the one giving the testimony and not dwell on what actual changes must be made in one’s life to truly get closer to God. Solutions were left intentionally quite vague. And, of course, both the SPLC and the PTL Club offer absolution for sins secular and sacred in nature by means of sinners’ dropping a nice fat check in the mail.
While the formula is timeless, the pitch itself was badly in need of upgrading in the case of the SPLC. It’s been two generations since the civil rights battles of the 1950s and ’60s. America elected a black man president, and while few of the truly intractable social problems relating to race have been solved, those problems are for serious people willing to do real work — not film flam artists writing empty prose for the crowd that prides itself on self-described awareness.
For some time now, the media culture has been suggesting that the battle for gay marriage has its parallels with the civil rights battles. Promoting gay marriage has certainly become a huge cause among the largely secular, affluent coastal elites who make up much of the donor base of the SPLC. It seems the perfect newly fashionable cause to adopt to attract a new generation of marks. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has followed the history of the SPLC that groups which promote traditional values suddenly find themselves on the SPLC hate map. I guess it is also not surprising that after so many warnings about its money-grubbing ways, the SPLC still has an audience for its exaggerations, misrepresentations, and outright distortions. As the man said, there is a sucker born every minute.
Perhaps if you personally know people who swear by the validity of the new SPLC hate map you may want to nicely inform them they are now charter members of the new secular version of the PTL Club and watch the reaction. If they get angry, remind them that this is not the assessment of the political right. The most damning quotes about Dees and the SPLC all come from former associates on the political left.