Politico’s lead story at this moment is a piece from the Magazine titled “Has a Civil Rights Stalwart Lost Its Way?” The stalwart in question is the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) a group which made its name suing the KKK but which now mostly makes news attacking mainstream conservative groups. That has led to a persistent critique that the SPLC overplays its hand. From Politico:
As [SPLC founder Morris] Dees navigates the era of Trump, there are new questions arising around a charge that has dogged the group for years: that the SPLC is overplaying its hand, becoming more of a partisan progressive hit operation than a civil rights watchdog. Critics say the group abuses its position as an arbiter of hatred by labeling legitimate players “hate groups” and “extremists” to keep the attention of its liberal donors and grind a political ax…
“I do think there is a desperate need for more objective research on hate crimes and domestic extremism—especially now,” says J.M. Berger, a researcher on extremism and a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague. But like many observers, he worries that the SPLC has gone too far in some of its hate group characterizations. “The problem partly stems from the fact that the organization wears two hats, as both an activist group and a source of information,” he says.
In October, the SPLC faced explosive blowback when it included British Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz on a list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” The targeting of Nawaz—a former Islamist turned anti-extremism campaigner who is considered a human rights leader by many in the mainstream—even sparked critical coverage in the Atlantic, creating the unusual spectacle of a publication founded by abolitionists going after a group founded to fight the KKK.
The same list also included Ayaan Hirsi Ali, citing a handful of statements she has made over nearly 10 years. As Politico points out, the SPLC’s list of extremists even includes libertarian Senators:
The SPLC has included Senator Rand Paul and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists on its extremists lists (Paul for suggesting private businesses shouldn’t have to adhere to the Civil Rights Act and criticizing the Fair Housing Act; Carson for his views opposing same-sex marriage). The group did back down after it put Carson on the 2014 “extremist watch” list—removing his name and issuing an apology that earned a lot of coverage in the conservative media. “This week, as we’ve come under intense criticism for doing so, we’ve reviewed our profile and have concluded that it did not meet our standards,” the organization’s statement said, “so we have taken it down and apologize to Dr. Carson for having posted it.”
In 2012 a man named Floyd Corkins went to the lobby of the Family Research Council (FRC) with the intent of killing the group’s staff. He later revealed he had gotten information on the group from the SPLC, which lists FRC as a hate group. More recently, James Hodgkinson, the Alexandria shooter who tried to assassinate GOP members of Congress also liked the SPLC on his anti-Republican Facebook page. If either incident this has given the group any pause, they aren’t showing it.
Ken Silverstein, who Politico identifies as a “liberal journalists,” wrote a critical piece on the SPLC for Harper’s magazine in 2000. Here’s a sample:
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 Center earned $44 million last year alone–$27 million from fund-raising and $17 million from stocks and other investments–but spent only $13 million on civil rights program , making it one of the most profitable charities in the country…
Morris Dees doesn’t need your financial support. The SPLC is already the wealthiest civil rights group in America, though this letter quite naturally omits that fact. Other solicitations have been more flagrantly misleading. One pitch, sent out in 1995-when the Center had more than $60 million in reserves-informed would-be donors that the “strain on our current operating budget is the greatest in our 25-year history.” Back in 1978, when the Center had less than $10 million, Dees promised that his organization would quit fund-raising and live off interest as soon as its endowment hit $55 million. But as it approached that figure, the SPLC upped the bar to $100 million, a sum that, one 1989 newsletter promised, would allow the Center “to cease the costly and often unreliable task of fund raising. ” Today, the SPLC’s treasury bulges with $120 million, and it spends twice as much on fund-raising-$5.76 million last year-as it does on legal services for victims of civil rights abuses. The American Institute of Philanthropy gives the Center one of the worst ratings of any group it monitors, estimating that the SPLC could operate for 4.6 years without making another tax-exempt nickel from its investments or raising another tax-deductible cent from well-meaning “people like you.”
The author of that piece, Silverstein, tells Politico, “The organization has always tried to find ways to milk money out of the public by finding whatever threat they can most credibly promote.” Politico reports the SPLC’s endowment is now more than $200 million. Dees and the SPLC’s President, Richard Cohen, each earn well over $300,000 a year running the organization.