Southern Poverty Law Center
By Amanda J. Holland
Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University
The Southern Poverty Law Center (hereafter, the center) is an organization founded to combat hate, intolerance and discrimination. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, the primary goal of the center is to "fight the effects of poverty with innovative lawsuits and education programs" (Dees & Fiffer 1991). It is a 501(c)(3) organization (i.e., a charitable nonprofit organization) that accepts no government funds to do its work.
The Civil Rights movement resulted in key legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, in the years following the passing of this legislation, the challenge of making sure these laws were actually being put into practice remained. Two lawyers, Joseph Levin and Morris Dees felt strongly that these laws were important and should be applied as fully as the courts would allow. It was this belief that brought them together to form a partnership and eventually led them to establish the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC "Center History").
In 1969, Morris Dees filed a lawsuit against the YMCA in Montgomery, Alabama, on behalf of the Smith family. The suit called for the YMCA to integrate based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dees' action in this case attracted Levin's attention and he decided to leave his father's law firm to work with Dees. Dees won the case, and soon after Levin and Dees formed a partnership (Dees & Fiffer 1991).
In 1969, the two men became partners in a small civil rights firm. As partners, they agreed to serve clients regardless of whether the client could afford to pay or not. They used money earned from paying clients to help cover the litigation costs of the clients who could not afford representation. Dees and Levin were determined that key civil rights legislation should be put into practice.
In 1971, Levin and Dees formally incorporated their firm as "The Southern Poverty Law Center" because Dees wanted people to know where they were and what they did. Soon after the formal incorporation, they began mailing like-minded people across the country. In these mailings, they explained their mission and the needs of their clients. This effort resulted in enough donations for them to hire staff members, including researchers and more lawyers (Chalmers 2003).
Since its inception, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been committed to eradicating hate and educating the community to promote tolerance. The Center has developed three areas of concentration to help carry out this mission: (1) Seeking Justice, (2) Monitoring Hate and (3) Promoting Tolerance ( Annual Report 2002).
A major way the Southern Poverty Law Center works on civil rights issues is through its legal services. The legal victories of the center have resulted in some landmark decisions. One key case, Paradise v. Allen, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the police forces in Alabama must integrate, set a legal precedent and cleared the way for African Americans to work in law enforcement. Other cases protected the rights of women. Such as the first successful sex discrimination suit against the federal government, Frontiero v. Richardson, in which the Supreme Court ruled that providing military benefits to the dependents of male servicemen but not to women was unconstitutional.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has also worked to stop the activities of hate groups in the United States. The center has successfully sued many hate groups for damages to their clients. The resulting financial burden has forced groups to disband. Cases that had this result include McKinney v. Southern White Knights in which the jury assessed a $1 million verdict that eventually resulted in the disbandment of the group (SPLC "Landmark Cases").
In order to protect and defend the rights of the populations that need it the most, the center has developed four main areas in which to concentrate their work:
- Anti-White Supremacist Legislation : The legal services department of the Southern Poverty Law Center has helped victims of hate crimes file suit against their victimizers. This work has resulted in the bankruptcy of some of the largest white supremacist groups in the country.
- Children and Juvenile Justice : From the YMCA case to current cases, the Center works to shield "children caught up in our juvenile justice system" (SPLC "Legal Action: Legal Agenda").
- Rights of Institutionalized Persons : This area of focus is aimed at prison reform and at making sure the rights of inmates are respected.
- Protecting the Rights of Immigrants : The center has represented immigrants for many years. Most recently, it has taken on cases of discrimination based on "English-only" policies.
Both the United States Congress and the United Nations have recognized the Southern Poverty Law Center as experts in hate crimes and domestic hate group intelligence. "The Center's Intelligence Project is dedicated to monitoring hate groups and extremist activity in the U.S." (SPLC "Intelligence: History").
The Intelligence Project of the center engages in several activities to monitor hate groups and inform and train the public about these groups. One major way the center does this work is through a quarterly publication entitled The Intelligence Report . Klanwatch, that began as a yearly report in 1981 and focused on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Since then, the publication has evolved to monitor all types of hate crimes and hate groups. These groups include extremist militia groups, black separatists and many other types. Due to the expansion of Klanwatch 's scope, the report was renamed The Intelligence Report in 1998. Today, the report is published quarterly and distributed to over 300,000 subscribers (more than 60,000 of which are law enforcement personnel).
The Intelligence Project is also involved in training key members of the community, especially law enforcement officers about hate crimes. Agencies can request training from center staff that fits their specific needs and focuses on the "history, background, leaders and activities of far-right extremists in the U.S." (SPLC "Intelligence: History"). In addition to this training, the center entered into an agreement with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) to "develop and write courses for training to improve the recognition, reporting and investigating of hate crimes" (SPLC "Intelligence: Law Enforcement").
The Southern Poverty Law Center has also established a program called Teaching Tolerance, dedicated to promoting understanding and appreciation for diversity in American schools. Founded in 1991, this project creates resources for teachers and administrators to use in their schools as well as acting as a "clearinghouse of information about anti-bias programs being implemented in schools across the country" (SPLC "Teaching Tolerance").
In conjunction with the Teaching Tolerance program, the center also established a Web site, Tolerance.org. in 2001 in order to support anti-bias activities in communities. Tolerance.org provides tools for creating an atmosphere of diversity in communities. These tools are designed for teachers, parents, teens and children to combat hate in their communities. They include ideas to promote appreciation of diversity, ways to deal with hate, and recommended resources such as books and activities to educate others about diversity and tolerance.
Another important way the Southern Poverty Law Center is serving its mission is through the Civil Rights Memorial, located at their offices in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin (the architect of the Vietnam War Memorial), and was dedicated in 1989 to honor those who died fighting for racial justice in the United States. It is inscribed with the names of people who were killed because of their involvement in the Civil Rights movement and with a quote from the Book of Amos: "Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" (Chalmers 2003, 137).
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a 501(3) organization (a charitable nonprofit organization) dedicated to public and societal benefit. The center is primarily funded through donor contributions. It also established an endowment (i.e., gifts made to create a permanent and ongoing income for an institution) in 1974. The center does not use any government funds to carry out its work ( Annual Report 2002). Additionally, through the Strategic Litigation Grant Project, the center provides assistance for attorneys working on important civil rights cases. This project covers litigation costs on cases that "otherwise might not move forward" (SPLC "Legal Assistance"). In this broad manner, the Southern Poverty Law Center is a functioning and integral nonprofit in the philanthropic sector that carries out work to benefit the common good. It provides an avenue for individuals who support civil rights and equality under the law to make a difference through their donations, volunteer work or (like Dees and Levin) through their work at the center.
Key Related Ideas
- Civil rights: Rights guaranteed to a person through citizenship; this especially refers to those rights guaranteed by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments (respectively, assuring freedom from slavery, and that all born and naturalized people of our country are citizens).
- Civil Rights Act of 1964: Legislation that banned discrimination based on sex or race in employment practices.
- Civil Rights movement: A movement that worked to establish the rights of minority citizens, primarily African Americans, in the United States.
- Extremist: A person who holds extreme views, far beyond that which are considered the norm.
- Hate crime: A crime committed based on prejudice toward a group rather than malice toward a person as an individual.
- Voting Rights Act of 1965: Legislation that ordered that voting rights cannot be denied based on race or color.
Important People Related to the Topic
- Julian Bond: Bond served as the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He has a long history as an activist in the Civil Rights movement. Bond is also the narrator of the video, "A Time for Justice," which won an Academy Award and "The Shadow of Hate" which was nominated for an Oscar (SPLC "Center History: Julian").
- Morris Dees: Dees is the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and currently serves as the Chief Trial Council of the center.
- Joseph J. Levin Jr.: Levin is the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and currently serves as its president and chief executive officer.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): The ACLU was founded in 1920 to defend and preserve the individual rights of people that are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU's mission is "to fight civil rights violations wherever they occur" (ACLU).
- Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama : The Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama works to provide legal services for poor clients who have not had fair treatment in the legal system. They currently collaborate with the Southern Poverty Law Center to provide services to incarcerated people in Alabama.
- NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People): The NAACP works to protect and enhance the civil rights of minorities, especially African-Americans.
Related Web Sites
- The American Civil Liberties Union Web site , at http://www.aclu.org/ , provides information about the mission and current work of the ACLU. The site also contains information on legislation and Supreme Court cases relating to civil rights issues.
- The Southern Poverty Law Center Web site , at http://www.splcenter.org/ , contains information on the center's history, legal cases, education programs, current publications, and donations.
- Tolerance.org Web site , at http://www.tolerance.org/ , is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The site provides information and resources to encourage anti-bias attitudes in the United States.
Bibliography and Internet Sources
American Civil Liberties Union. "About the ALCU." ACLU. http://www.aclu.org/about/aboutmain.cfm .
Chalmers, David. Backfire: How the Klu Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement . Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publisher, 2003.
Dees, Morris, and Steve Fiffer. A Season For Justice . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.
Dees, Morris and Steve Fiffer. Hate on Trial . New York: Villard Books, 1993.
n.a. Annual Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2002.
n.a . False Patriots: The Threat of Antigovernment Extremists. Montgomery, Alabama: Southern Poverty Law Center, 1996.
Southern Poverty Law Center. "About the Center." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/center/about.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Center History: Julian Bond." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/center/history/bond.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Center History." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/center/history/history.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "The Civil Rights Memorial Center." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/center/crmc/civil.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Intelligence Project: Intelligence Project History." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/intel/history.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Intelligence Project: Law Enforcement Training." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/intel/law.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Landmark Cases." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/legal/landmark/challenge.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Legal Action: Legal Agenda." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/legal/agenda.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Legal Assistance: What is the Strategic Litigation Grant Project?" Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/legal/assist/grant.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Teaching Tolerance." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/center/tt/teach.jsp .
Southern Poverty Law Center. "Tolerance.org." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/center/torg/toler.jsp .
Tolerance.org. "Homepage." Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.tolerance.org/
This page may be reproduced for educational, noncommercial uses only, all other rights reserved.