The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was founded in 1971 by two Alabama attorneys, Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr. The latter served as the Center's legal director from 1971-76, but it was Dees, who views the U.S. as an irredeemably racist nation, who would emerge as the long-term “face” of the organization.
Identifying itself as a “nonprofit civil rights organization” committed to “fighting hate and bigotry” while “seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society,” SPLC describes the United States as a country “seething with racial violence” and “intolerance against those who are different.” “Hate in America is a dreadful, daily constant,” says the Center, and violent crimes against members of minority groups like blacks, Latinos, homosexuals, and Arabs/Muslims “are not ‘isolated incidents,’” but rather, commonplace. To combat this ugly state of affairs, SPLC dedicates itself to “tracking and exposing the activities of “hate groups and other domestic extremists” throughout the United States. Specifically, the Center's “Hate & Extremism” initiative publishes its findings in SPLC’s Hatewatch Blog and in its quarterly journal, the Intelligence Report.
SPLC first gained widespread national recognition in 1987, when it won a $7 million verdict in a high-profile civil lawsuit against the United Klans of America (UKA). By the time that lawsuit was filed, UKA was already a destitute, impotent, disintegrating entity that virtually all white Americans emphatically rejected; the SPLC lawsuit merely drove the final nail into the UKA coffin. SPLC boasts that it has likewise won “crushing jury verdicts” that effectively shut down groups like the White Aryan Resistance, the White Patriot Party militia, and the Aryan Nations.
This has been SPLC's modus operandi since its inception: to initiate lawsuits against prominent hate groups for crimes that their individual members commit. In these suits, declares Morris Dees proudly: “We absolutely take no prisoners. When we get into a legal fight we go all the way.” The leftist writer Ken Silverstein, who in 2000 wrote a penetrating exposé of SPLC for Harper's magazine, has noted that the targets of these lawsuits tend to be “mediagenic villains” who are “eager to show off their swastikas for the news cameras.” As Dees and SPLC well understand, such figures stand the best chance of triggering an emotional public response that translates, in turn, into financial contributions from donors eager to combat the perceived threat.
SPLC claims that there are currently 892 active “hate groups” in the U.S. Asserting that the vast majority of such organizations are “right wing,” the Center says they include “the Ku Klux Klan,” “the neo-Nazi movement,” “neo-Confederates,” “racist skinheads,” “antigovernment militias,” “Christian Identity adherents,” and a variety of “anti-immigrant,” “anti-LGBT,” “anti-Muslim,” and “alternative Right” organizations. While also identifying a tiny smattering of black separatist entities as hate groups, SPLC takes pains to point out that black organizations must be judged by a different standard than their white counterparts, because “much black racism in America is, at least in part, a response to centuries of white racism.”
SPLC contends that from 2000 to 2012, the number of hate groups in the U.S. increased by 67%—a surge allegedly “fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president” (Barack Obama). And America's racists, by SPLC's calculus, are almost all conservatives—as evidenced by the caption featured in the “Hatewatch” section of SPLC’s website: “Hatewatch monitors and exposes the activities of the American radical right.” The radical left gets no mention at all.
SPLC's “hate group” counts have been shown to be devoid of legitimacy a number of times. Laird Wilcox—a researcher specializing in the study of political fringe movements—reports that many SPLC-designated “hate groups” are untraceable, due either to their inactivity or nonexistence. After analyzing the SPLC Klanwatch Project's list of 346 “white supremacist groups” in 1992, for instance, Wilcox concluded that in fact there were only “about 50” such groups “that are objectively significant, are actually functioning and have more than a handful of real numbers—not post office box ‘groups’ or two-man local chapters.” In 2005, Wilcox reported: “Several years ago with minimal effort I went through a list of 800-plus 'hate groups' published by the SPLC and determined that over half of them were either non-existent, existed in name only, or were inactive.”
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes for the far-left Nation magazine, once said: “No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of [hate] groups than [SPLC's] millionaire huckster, Morris Dees, who in 1999 began a begging [i.e., fundraising] letter [by stating that] ‘the danger presented by the Klan is greater now than at any time in the past ten years.’” To put Dees's claim in perspective, the Ku Klux Klan at that time consisted of no more than 3,000 people nationwide—a far cry from the 4 million members it had boasted in the 1920s. Nonetheless, noted Wypijewski, “Dees would have his donors believe” that cadres of “militia nuts” are “lurking around every corner.”
In a similar vein, the late left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn in 2009 called Dees the “arch-salesman of hate-mongering,” a man who profited by “selling the notion there’s a right resurgence out there in the hinterland with massed legions of haters, ready to march down Main Street draped in Klan robes, a copy of Mein Kampf tucked under one arm and a Bible under the other.” “Ever since 1971,” added Cockburn, “U.S. Postal Service mailbags have bulged with [Dees's] fundraising letters, scaring dollars out of the pockets of trembling liberals aghast at his lurid depictions of hate-sodden America.”
Regardless of how dramatically SPLC overstates their numbers, white racists like neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and skinheads indisputably deserve to be categorized as “hate groups.” But the Center irresponsibly extends that designation also to numerous conservative and libertarian organizations that harbor no ill will against any demographic group, but merely hold political positions contrary to those of SPLC. As syndicated columnist Don Feder writes: “What makes [SPLC] particularly odious is its habit of taking legitimate conservatives and jumbling them with genuine hate groups (the Klan, Aryan Nation, skinheads, etc.), to make it appear that there’s a logical relationship between, say, opposing affirmative action and lynching, or demands for an end to government services for illegal aliens and attacks on dark-skinned immigrants.”
For instance, one noteworthy organization that SPLC has placed in its cross hairs is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which the Center, in a 2003 report authored by researcher/writer Chip Berlet, identified as part of “an array of right-wing foundations and think tanks [that] support efforts to make bigoted and discredited ideas respectable.” Especially objectionable to SPLC was AEI fellow Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian-born scholar (and former Reagan Administration adviser) “whose views,” according to Berlet, “are seen by many as bigoted or even racist.” Specifically, D'Souza has written that affirmative action is an unjust, counterproductive policy; that “many liberals have been peculiarly blind about black racism”; that “virtually all contemporary liberal assumptions about the origin of racism ... and what to do about it are wrong”; and that “the civil-rights industry ... now has a vested interest in the persistence of the ghetto, because the miseries of poor blacks are the best advertisement for continuing programs of racial preference and set-asides.” “D'Souza has suggested,” wrote Berlet incredulously, “that civil rights activists actually help perpetuate racial tensions and division in the United States.” Such sentiments as D’Souza’s are—notwithstanding the repeatedly divisive rhetoric and actions of racial arsonists like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and the late Julian Bond—anathema to an organization whose income stream is largely dependent upon an ability to perpetuate public angst over black suffering.
Berlet's 2003 report likewise denounced another AEI-sponsored scholar, Charles Murray—a Bradley Foundation research fellow who in 1994 co-authored The Bell Curve, which SPLC described as “a book that argues that blacks and Latinos are genetically inferior to whites and that most social welfare and affirmative action programs are doomed to failure as a result.” Addressing unfounded critiques such as this, Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell wrote that widespread “demonization” by “demagogues” who were interested only in hearing “what they want to hear,” had rendered The Bell Curve “one of the most misrepresented books of our time.”
In SPLC's 2003 report as well, Berlet charged that conservative author David Horowitz “has blamed slavery on 'black Africans ... abetted by dark-skinned Arabs'—a selective rewriting of history.” To this, Horowitz replied:
“I never in my life blamed slavery on black Africans … abetted by dark-skinned Arabs.' What idiot would not know that white Europeans conducted the Atlantic Slave Trade, which trafficked in 11 million black African chattel? The sentence Berlet mangles is not a historical statement about slavery but a polemical response to the proponents of reparations who are demanding that only whites pay blacks for an institution—slavery—that has been eradicated in the western world (but not Arab and black Africa) for more than 100 years. It is intended to remind people that the slaves transported to America were bought from African and Arab slavers—not to blame Africans and Arabs for sole responsibility for slavery.”
Berlet also took issue with what he called Horowitz's “false” claim that “there never was an anti-slavery movement until white Christians—Englishmen and Americans—created one.” “Critics note,” Berlet added, “that Horowitz is ignoring everything from the slave revolt led by Spartacus against the Romans and Moses' rebellion against the Pharaoh to the role of American blacks in the abolition movement.” And yet, Horowitz had already anticipated and discredited these very charges two years earlier, in his 2001 book Uncivil Wars: The Controversy About Slavery, wherein he wrote:
“For thousands of years, until the end of the Eighteenth Century, slavery had been considered a normal institution of human societies. In all that time, no group had arisen to challenge its legitimacy. Of course, there were many slave revolts from the times of Moses and Spartacus, in which those who had been enslaved sought to gain their freedom. But that was not the point. The freedom they had sought was their own. They did not revolt against the institution of slavery as such. What had happened in the English-speaking countries at the dawn of the American Republican was entirely unique. Before then, no one had thought to form a movement dedicated to the belief that the institution of slavery was itself immoral. What was important in this historical fact was that it showed that white Europeans who were the target of the reparations indictment had played a pivotal role in the emancipation from slavery.”
Berlet’s gross misrepresentations of Horowitz’s work can only be understood in the context of Berlet’s own political and ideological track record. For instance, in the mid-1970s he volunteered to work on Counterspy magazine, an anti-CIA periodical founded by Philip Agee, the onetime intelligence officer who subsequently turned against the agency and spent years exposing the identity of undercover American spies who were stationed overseas. During the Cold War, Berlet was a supporter of Communist police states—most notably Albania, one of the most backward and repressive. Indeed, in 1983 Berlet was a founding member of the Chicago Area Friends of Albania, a Communist front group that supported the People's Socialist Republic of Albania and the repressive political rule of the Marxist-Leninist dictator Enver Hoxha. And for the past 35 years Berlet has been a paralegal member of the National Lawyers Guild, which throughout the Cold War embraced pro-Soviet agendas while systematically opposing the foreign policies of the United States, and which continues to depict America as the principal wellspring of evil on earth.
In 2010 SPLC denounced the Tea Party, which advocated reductions in government spending and taxes, as a movement that was “shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories, and racism.”
Another of SPLC's bedrock beliefs is its conviction that the U.S., in addition to being inherently racist, is also a homophobic nation that countenances all manner of injustice against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people—who, according to the Center, are “far more likely to be victims of a violent hate crime than any other minority group in the United States.” SPLC tars anyone objecting to transformative cultural changes involving homosexuals—such as gay marriage—as a “hate” monger whose opinions have no more legitimacy than those of an Aryan militia. Thus did the Center once list the conservative Family Research Council as a hate group, chiefly because of its opposition to same-sex marriage and its view that homosexuality is an “unnatural” condition “associated with negative physical and psychological health effects.” It should be noted that FRC expresses no malice at all toward homosexuals, as demonstrated not only by its professed “sympathy” for “those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions,” but also by its call for “every effort … to assist such persons to overcome those attractions.”
SPLC’s list of hate groups and extremist groups also includes the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative organization that opposes homosexuality on religious grounds and rejects the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would designate transgendered people (cross-dressers) as a “protected class” whom employers would not be free to eliminate from job-applicant pools on that basis.
SPLC sees “Islamophobia”—hatred and fear based on religious faith—as yet another major defect in the American character. The June 2012 edition of Intelligence Report, for instance, featured a hit-piece titled “30 New Activists Heading Up the Radical Right,” which claimed that “an anti-Muslim movement, almost entirely ginned up by political opportunists and hard-line Islamophobes, has grown enormously since taking off in 2010, when reported anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 50%.”
That seemingly ominous statistic seems less foreboding, however, when one considers that according to FBI data, the number of “reported anti-Muslim hate crimes” nationwide increased from 107 in 2009 to 160 in 2010—technically a 50% increase, but hardly what could be characterized as an epidemic in a nation of more than 300 million people. Further, SPLC's report gives no indication that the anti-Muslim hate-crime count of 2010 was in fact consistent with the normal, slightly fluctuating incidence of such events in other years—e.g., 155 in 2002, 149 in 2003, and 156 in 2004. Equally noteworthy is the fact that when the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes had dropped from 156 in 2006 to 115 in 2007—and from 481 in 2001 (the year of the 9/11 attacks) to 155 in 2002—the Center never thought to suggest that bigotry against Muslims was steeply declining.
SPLC's “30 New Activists” report dismisses, as purveyors of hate, a number of scholars, researchers, and journalists who have examined and discussed, in a thoughtful and responsible manner, the teachings, values, history, and objectives of militant Islamists. Among those smeared in the report are World Net Daily publisher Joseph Farah, American Center for Security Policy founder Frank Gaffney, blogger/activist Pamela Geller, and Accuracy in Media director Cliff Kincaid. In an effort to marginalize these individuals, SPLC lumps them together with Klansmen and neo-Nazis.
In October 2016, SPLC published a report titled Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, a blacklist profiling 15 “Islam-bashing activists” whose “propaganda” was allegedly responsible for “fueling” acts of public “hatred” against “American Muslims,” who purportedly “have been under attack” in the U.S. “ever since the Al Qaeda massacre of Sept. 11, 2001.” The subjects of these profiles included:
- Ann Corcoran, founder of the blog Refugee Resettlement Watch
- Steven Emerson, director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism
- Brigitte Gabriel, founder of ACT for America
- Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Policy
- Pamela Geller, co-founder of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (and Stop Islamization of America)
- John Guandolo, founder of the consultation and training group, Understanding the Threat
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist and author
- David Horowitz, founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center
- Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst with the Clarion Project
- Robert Muise, co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center
- Maajid Nawaz, a self-identified “proud Muslim” who opposes the radicalization of his faith
- Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum
- Walid Shoebat, a Palestinian American activist who converted from Islam to Christianity
- Robert Spencer, founder of Jihad Watch
- David Yerushalmi, co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center
Each of these individuals seeks, in writings and speeches that are firmly rooted in factual information, to inform the American public about the beliefs, values, agendas, and activities of Islamic jihadists, and about the potential consequences of widespread Muslim immigration to the United States. But SPLC—rather than simply asserting that it views the arguments or conclusions of these authors as flawed—instead smears them as wild-eyed Islamophobes who, as in the case of Gaffney, are “gripped by paranoid fantasies about Muslims destroying the West from within.” Consider, for instance, some of the easily verifiable—or at least arguable—statements that SPLC has cited as evidence of unhinged bigotry:
- Corcoran's assertion that “we have made a grievous error in taking the Muslim refugees, Somalis in particular, who have no intention of becoming Americans”;
- Emerson's assertion that the Obama administration “extensively collaborates” with the Muslim Brotherhood, and that Europe has numerous “no-go zones” which non-Muslims cannot enter without great peril to their own safety;
- Gabriel's assertion that any “practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah” and embraces Sharia Law “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States,” and that Islamists' “ideology … forbids them to assimilate” to Western culture;
- Gaffney's assertion that “we’re witnessing not just the violent kind of jihad that these Islamists believe God compels them to engage in, but also, where they must for tactical reasons, a more stealthy kind, or civilizational jihad as the Muslim Brotherhood calls it”;
- Geller's assertion that Islam is “the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth”;
- Hirsi Ali's assertion that Islamic schools in the West should be shut down, and that “violence is inherent in Islam”;
- Horowitz's 2008 ad campaign stating that the Muslim Students Association was “founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the godfather of Al Qaeda and Hamas, to bring jihad into the heart of American higher education” (SPLC had once dubbed Horowitz himself as “the godfather of the anti-Muslim movement”);
- Muise's assertion that “stealth jihadists … covertly seek to perpetuate sharia into American society,” and that “80% of the mosques in the United States distribute literature that promotes violence against nonbelievers”;
- Pipes's assertion that the infamous terrorist organization ISIS is “100 percent Islamic” and “profoundly Islamic”;
- Spencer's assertion that “traditional Islam itself is not moderate or peaceful,” and “is the only major world religion with a developed doctrine and tradition of warfare against unbelievers”; and
- Yerushalmi's assertion that “our greatest enemy today is Islam,” and that “the only Islam appearing in any formal way around the world is one that seeks a world Caliphate through murder, terror and fear.”
In a 2016 interview with the Tablet, the aforementioned Maajid Nawaz stated that the SPLC staffers who had collaborated on writing the Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists were “a bunch of first-world, comfortable liberal Americans who are not Muslims [and] have decided from their comfortable perch to label me, an activist who is working within his Muslim community to push back against extremism, an anti-Muslim extremist.” Emphasizing that because SPLC's blacklist had “put a target on my head,” Nawaz said he believed that his own life was now in danger: “This is what putting people on lists does. When Theo Van Gogh was killed in the Netherlands, a list was stuck to his body that included Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s name. It was a hit list. When Bangladeshi reformers were hacked to death by jihadist terrorists, they were working off lists.” “The left is no longer about advancing progressive values,” Nawaz added. “For them, it’s now about tribal identities, and any internal critique is seen as treachery.”
It is worth noting the serious ramifications that had previously occurred when SPLC in 2012 listed the conservative Family Research Council (FRC) as a hate group. On the morning of August 15, 2012, a domestic terrorist named Floyd Corkins walked into FRC's Washington, DC headquarters carrying a pistol and 100 rounds of ammunition with the intention of “kill[ing] people in the building.” His plan was thwarted by an operations manager who physically tackled him to the ground. When an FBI agent subsequently asked Corkins why he had chosen to target FRC, the would-be killer replied: “It was a, uh, Southern Poverty Law lists, uh, anti-gay groups. I found them online. I did a little bit of research, went to the website. Stuff like that.”
Adhering to the theme of a profoundly hateful United States, SPLC charges that Latin American immigrants, who “perform some of the hardest, most dangerous jobs in our economy—for the least amount of pay,” are routinely “cheated out of their wages”; “denied basic protections in the workplace”; “subjected to racial profiling and harassment by law enforcement”; and “targeted for violent hate crimes.” These trends, says SPLC, have been “encouraged” by “politicians and media figures” guilty of spreading “false propaganda that scapegoats immigrants for our nation’s problems and foments resentment and hate against them.” The growth of this “civil rights crisis,” as SPLC calls it, “has been driven almost entirely by the immigration debate.” Conspicuously absent from the foregoing assertions is any acknowledgment that it is illegal immigration that sits at the heart of that debate.
SPLC derides the American Legion's opposition to illegal immigration and amnesty as “Legionnaires’ Disease”—even though the Legion fully supports opportunities for legal immigration. The Center similarly denounces the Minuteman Project—a nonviolent, volunteer effort initiated by private American citizens seeking to restrict the flow of illegal border-crossers—as an organization whose ideals and tactics are rooted in racism. The Arizona-based American Border Patrol, which monitors traffic across Southeastern Arizona's border with Mexico—the heart of a major smuggling corridor—is classified by SPLC as a “hate group” dominated by “anti-immigrant ideologues.” And Americans for Immigration Control, which contends that illegal immigration is a “lawless” phenomenon that “puts the future of our country in jeopardy,” is branded an “anti-immigrant” hate group.
As is typical of organizations on the left, SPLC is ever-prepared to label its political and ideological adversaries as purveyors of “hate” and “intolerance.” But in reality, that is nothing more than psychological projection. Hatred and intolerance for the opinions and values of others are prime components in the very lifeblood of SPLC.
Yet another major component of that lifeblood is money. Although SPLC possesses reserve assets valued at more than a quarter of a billion dollars, it spends, in comparison to other nonprofit organizations, an unusually small percentage of its revenues on actual program services—and a great deal on salaries, overhead, and fundraising. As The Weekly Standard reports: “CharityWatch, 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 … to tide it over during donation-lean years.”
More than any other organization in America, the Southern Poverty Law Center has turned hate-based identity politics and grievance mongering into a highly profitable scam.
 Laird Wilcox, The Watchdogs (Olathe, KS: Editorial Research Service, 1998), p. 55.