King of Fearmongers

Charlotte Allen, Weekly Standard, April 15, 2013

Last August a 28-year-old gay-rights volunteer named Floyd Corkins entered the office lobby of the Family Research Council (FRC), a Christian traditional-values group headquartered in Washington that condemns homosexual conduct and opposes same-sex marriage. Corkins took a gun from his backpack and fired three shots at building manager Leo Johnson, one of them wounding the unarmed Johnson in the arm before he wrested the gun from Corkins. On February 6 Corkins pleaded guilty to three felonies: committing an act of terrorism while armed, interstate transportation of a firearm and ammunition (he had bought the weapon in Virginia), and assault with intent to kill while armed. He faces a sentencing hearing on April 29 that could include up to 70 years in prison. According to federal prosecutors’ statements in court documents, Corkins told investigators that he had intended to kill Johnson and numerous other FRC employees. His backpack contained 15 sandwiches from the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, whose founder, S. Truett Cathy, contributed through his family foundation to several organizations opposed to gay marriage, including the FRC. According to prosecutors, Corkins said he had planned to smear the faces of the dead FRC employees with the sandwiches once his shooting spree ended.

Corkins found out about the FRC from the ever-expanding (at least in recent years) list of “hate groups” tracked on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil-rights behemoth bursting with donor cash headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama. Cofounded in 1971 by Morris S. Dees Jr. and Joseph Levin Jr. (who is now general counsel), the SPLC started out fighting legal battles against lingering segregation in the South. More recently—and more lucratively, its critics say—it has transformed itself into an all-purpose antihate crusader, labeling 1,007 different organizations across America at last count as “anti-gay,” “white nationalist,” “anti-Muslim,” “anti-immigrant,” or just plain hateful (one SPLC category is “general hate”). The SPLC put the FRC on its list of “anti-gay” organizations in 2010, and the SPLC’s “Hate Map” page, whose banner displays men in Nazi-style helmets giving Sieg Heil salutes, lists the FRC among 14 hate groups headquartered in the District of Columbia. The Hate Map doesn’t include the groups’ street addresses, but those typically take only a few seconds to find with Google. Besides the chicken sandwiches and some 50 rounds of ammunition found on Corkins’s person was the address of the Traditional Values Coalition, another D.C.-based “anti-gay” group listed on the SPLC’s Hate Map.


{snip} Thanks to the generosity of four decades’ worth of donors, many of whom—as SPLC president Richard Cohen himself noted in a telephone interview with me—are aging Northern-state “1960s liberals” who continue to associate “Southern” and “poverty” with lynchings, white-hooded Klansmen, and sitting at the back of the bus, and thanks also to what can only be described as the sheer genius at direct-mail marketing of Dees, the SPLC’s 76-year-old lawyer-founder, who was already a multimillionaire by the late 1960s from the direct-mail sales of everything from doormats to cookbooks, the SPLC is probably the richest poverty organization in the history of the world. From its very beginning the SPLC, thanks to Dees’s talent for crafting multi-page alarmist fundraising letters, has not only continuously operated in the black, but has steadily accumulated a mountain of surpluses augmented by a shrewdly managed investment portfolio. Today the SPLC’s net assets total more than $256 million (that figure appears on the SPLC’s 2011 tax return, the latest posted on the organization’s website). {snip}

So impressed was the Direct Marketing Association in 1998 with Dees’s superb fundraising talents that it inducted him into its Hall of Fame, where he shares honors with Benjamin Franklin, first postmaster general, and catalogue retailer L. L. Bean. The SPLC’s sprawling two-story concrete-and-glass headquarters in downtown Montgomery bore the nickname “Poverty Palace” among locals—until the mid-2000s, when the center, whose staff had grown to more than 200 (including 34 lawyers), moved into a fortress-like six-story office building that it had commissioned. The new SPLC building, a postmodernist parallelepiped faced in steel and black glass, has been variously described by its critics as a “small-scale Death Star” and a “highrise trailer.”

{snip} In 2010 the Montgomery Advertiser published a 60-photo online slideshow of Morris Dees’s lavishly appointed neo-Mediterranean home, whose eclectic architectural and interior-decor influences seemingly included the Alhambra, David Hockney’s swimming-pool paintings, the Etsy home page, and a 1970s shag-rug revival. {snip}

This leads to yet another SPLC irony: Its severest critics aren’t on the conservative right (although the Federation for American Immigration Reform, another “hate group” on the SPLC’s list, has done its fair share of complaining), but on the progressive left. It may come as a surprise to learn that one of the most vituperative of all the critics was the recently deceased Alexander Cockburn, columnist for the Nation and the leftist webzine CounterPunch. In a 2009 article for CounterPunch titled “King of the Hate Business,” Cockburn castigated Dees and the SPLC for using the 2008 election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president as yet another wringer for squeezing out direct-mail donations from “trembling liberals” by painting an apocalyptic picture of “millions of [anti-Obama] extremists primed to march down Main Street draped in Klan robes, a copy of Mein Kampf tucked under one arm and a Bible under the other.” Cockburn continued: “Ever since 1971 U.S. Postal Service mailbags have bulged with Dees’ fundraising letters, scaring dollars out of the pockets of trembling liberals aghast at his lurid depictions of hate-sodden America, in dire need of legal confrontation by the SPLC.”


What has infuriated the SPLC’s liberal critics is their suspicion that Morris Dees has used the SPLC primarily as a fundraising machine fueled by his direct-mail talents that generates a nice living for himself (the SPLC’s 2010 tax filing lists a compensation package of $345,000 for him as the organization’s chief trial counsel and highest-paid employee) and a handful of other high ranking SPLC officials plus luxurious offices and perks, but that does relatively little in the way of providing the legal services to poor people that its name implies.

CharityWatch (formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy), an independent organization that monitors and rates leading nonprofits for their fundraising efficiency, has consistently given the SPLC its lowest grade of “F” (i.e., “poor”) for its stockpiling of assets far beyond what CharityWatch deems a reasonable reserve (three years’ worth of operating expenses) to tide it over during donation-lean years. But even if the SPLC weren’t sitting on an unspent $256 million, according to CharityWatch, it would still be a mediocre (“C+”) performer among nonprofits. The SPLC’s 2011 tax filing reveals that the organization raised a total of $38.5 million from its donors that year but spent only $24.9 million on “program services,” with the rest going to salaries, overhead, and fundraising. And even that 67 percent figure is somewhat inflated, according to CharityWatch, which notes that the SPLC takes advantage of an accounting rule that permits nonprofits to count some of their fundraising expenses as “public education” if, for example, a mailer contains an informational component. CharityWatch, ignoring that accounting rule, maintains that only 60 percent—about $19 million—went to program services during the year in question. The SPLC’s 2011 tax return reveals that the organization spent $1.6 million (aside from salaries) on litigation-related costs that year, in contrast to the $7.8 million it spent on “professional fundraising services,” “postage and shipping cost,” “printing & lettershop,” and “other development cost.”

Furthermore, the SPLC spends a relatively high $26 on fundraising (according to CharityWatch, $18 according to the SPLC) for every $100 that it manages to raise. Compare that with the “B+” rated American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where 78 percent of the budget goes to program services and $20 is spent for every $100 raised or to the “A-” rated ACLU Foundation (79 percent going to program services and only $11 spent to raise $100). True, the ACLU has net assets comparable to those of the SPLC, $254 million according to a fiscal 2012 financial statement, but it spends a full $111 million a year on program services. People who want to support a litigation-minded liberal organization and see a higher percentage of their donations actually spent on the causes they support might be better off giving to the ACLU—or to some shoestring civil rights nonprofit that actually needs the donor’s money.


During the 1970s and 1980s Dees is said to have briefly flirted with other liberal causes for the SPLC—abortion rights and gun control, for example—before shutting them down. But he hit the jackpot with the Ku Klux Klan, helped along by Klansmen’s regular denunciations of him as a Communist, an attempted firebombing of the SPLC office in 1983, and the occasional threat to his life. In 1981 Dees formed Klanwatch as an educational and publications unit of the SPLC. It was the beginning of the SPLC’s focus on “hate groups.” Fundraising letters flew out from Montgomery signed by such liberal celebrities as McGovern, Ethel Kennedy, and novelist Toni Morrison. A 1985 letter bearing the signature of a Montgomery rabbi “asked for funds to protect the Center and its staff, ‘who are suffering under a siege of Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi terrorism unparalleled in this decade,’ ” Egerton reported in the Progressive. The letter with its hints of anti-Semitism run amok, reportedly mailed to zip codes on the East and West Coasts populated by wealthy Jews, referred to Dees as “Morris Seligman Dees.” Dees was raised Baptist but received a rarely used Jewish-sounding middle name from his father, who had himself been named in honor of a “prominent Jewish Alabamian,” Egerton noted in his article. At one point in 1986 the SPLC’s entire cadre of staff attorneys quit en masse, dismayed by Dees’s obsession with the Klan at the expense of what they perceived to be more pressing civil rights issues such as employment and housing discrimination.


The SPLC’s most striking legal victory in the South was a $7 million judgment in 1987 against the United Klans of America, notorious for the violent acts committed by its members during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. The SPLC had filed the suit on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, a black woman whose son Michael was lynched by two Klansmen in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. Donald received only a tiny fraction of that amount, however, since the United Klans’ sole asset by then was its national headquarters, a rundown warehouse in Tuscaloosa whose forced sale netted only $51,875. Meanwhile, according to the Montgomery Advertiser, the SPLC’s fundraising mailings highlighting the case, one of which featured a photo of Michael Donald’s corpse, brought the center $9 million in donations. The SPLC continues to this day to tout the $7 million judgment in its promotional materials and to take credit for putting the United Klans out of business, although some of its members simply joined other Klan groups after the United Klans dissolved.

Similarly, a $12.5 million judgment that the SPLC won in Oregon in 1990 against Tom Metzger, a former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who later led a group called the White Aryan Resistance, over the beating death of an Ethiopian immigrant by three skinheads in 1988, remains largely a paper victory. Furthermore, even some civil libertarians were troubled by the SPLC’s legal strategy, which was predicated on the theory that Metzger and his son were responsible for the homicide because they had made incendiary racist statements that inspired the skinheads to commit the crime. The ACLU, for example, filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the Metzgers’ statements were protected by the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees and that the father and son should have been held liable only if it could be proved that they had intentionally provoked the skinheads’ violence.

{snip} A 2010 post on Hatewatch didn’t quite go so far as to characterize the Tea Party as a hate group, but it came close, citing the grassroots movement’s attraction for “antigovernment extremists.” On a web page titled “Misogyny: The Sites,” the SPLC skirts self-parody, branding the “manosphere” blogs of pickup artists and other dispensers of seduction techniques as hate-promoting because their posts bear such titles as “Even Nice Girls Are Sluts” and “More Proof That Feminism is a Social Cancer.” The SPLC is currently spotlighting the prison gang Aryan Brotherhood of Texas as a hate group because of its rumored, although as yet unproven, connection to the murders of two prosecutors in Kaufman County, Texas.

One of the SPLC’s leitmotifs is that there is an ever-spiraling amount of hate in America, and sure enough, its state-by-state list of hate and patriot groups has grown steadily over the years, especially during the presidency of Obama, a godsend to the SPLC’s fundraisers because of his race and his pro-gun control and pro-gay marriage stances. In the SPLC’s latest hate report, issued on March 5, it counted a record 1,360 patriot groups alone during 2012, up 6.75 percent since 2011 and up by almost a factor of 10 from the mere 149 such organizations that the SPLC had counted just before Obama was elected in 2008. {snip}

Critics have charged that the way the SPLC counts hate groups renders its impressive tallies essentially meaningless. One of the most vocal critics is Laird Wilcox, a self-described political liberal in Olathe, Kansas, who has been tracking radical-fringe organizations on both the left and the right for five decades, amassing an enormous documentary archive that is now housed at the library of the University of Kansas. According to Wilcox, many of the organizations on the SPLC’s expansive list “may be two guys and a post-office box,” while others might not exist at all. “Their lists of hate groups never have addresses that can be checked,” Wilcox said in a telephone interview. “I’ve had police departments across the country calling me and saying we can’t find this group [on the SPLC’s list]. All they can find is a post-office box, so I have to tell them that I don’t know whether they even exist.” In a self-published book, The Watchdogs, he criticized the SPLC for having “misleadingly padded” its list of white-supremacy organizations. {snip}


To the SPLC’s credit—or perhaps in an effort to distance itself gradually from Dees’s much-criticized fish-in-a-barrel Klan lawsuits—the center’s legal department, which now maintains offices in four other Southern cities besides Montgomery, has branched out substantially into immigrant rights, prison reform, and gay and lesbian issues (although several critics with whom I spoke speculated that the last might represent another of Dees’s efforts to tap via mailing lists into a well-off and easily frightened donor base: gays). The SPLC’s online list of its legal actions seems thin for a staff of 34 lawyers plus about 36 support-staffers: only 16 new case-filings in 2012 plus 1 in 2013, although Cohen, the center’s president and legal director, said the list represents only the tip of a litigation iceberg, and that most of the suits had been preceded by months of laborious investigation.


In 2011 the Gruber Foundation, headquartered at Yale, awarded Dees its coveted Justice Prize, citing, yes, one more time, that $7 million verdict the SPLC won in 1987 against the United Klans of America. In August 2012 the American Bar Association presented him with the ABA Medal, the organization’s highest award, “for exceptionally distinguished service by a lawyer or lawyers to the cause of American jurisprudence.” (Both the Gruber Foundation and the ABA declined requests for interviews.) At around the time that Dees picked up his medal from the ABA last summer, the Obama Justice Department hosted him as a featured speaker at a “diversity training event” for some of its employees in Washington, where a DOJ staffer picked him up at the airport and took him out to dinner with his family, according to emails obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Still, there may soon come a day when the SPLC’s donation-generating machine, powered by Dees’s mastery of the use of “hate” to coax dollars from the highly educated and the highly gullible, finally breaks down. That is why, according to Cohen, the SPLC has no intention of soon spending down much of that $256 million in stockpiled assets that has earned the center an “F” rating from CharityWatch. “We’ve tried to raise a substantial endowment, because our fundraising is on a downward trend,” Cohen told me. “Those 1960s liberals—they’re getting older, and the post office is dying. We’re likely to be out of the fundraising business within 10 years.” What the SPLC wants to do is to ensure that “hate” is forever.


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