The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a controversial watchdog of extremist groups. It has been criticized for its financial practices and for characterizing non-violent conventional conservative organizations as equivalent to violent extremists.
SPLC was co-founded in 1970 by Morris Dees, a lawyer and direct marketing expert and fellow Alabama attorney, Joseph Levin, Jr. They appointed civil rights activist Julian Bond as SPLC’s first president. In its first two decades, the SPLC won high-profile civil rights cases and filed lawsuits credited with breaking the Ku Klux Klan. The SPLC combined its legal successes with Dees’ direct mail marketing expertise to raise millions of dollars. In later years, the SPLC leveraged its influence to collect and create widely-circulated reports about “hate group” activity around the country.
Since its victories over the Klan in the 1980s, the SPLC has been widely criticized by both right-of-center and left-of-center observers for its excessive fundraising and controversial methodologies. SPLC’s labeling of political opponents as has resulted in mainstream conservative individuals and groups, as well as anti-extremist Muslims, being conflated with neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other actual extremist elements. The SPLC uses its former credibility to smear its political foes; despite this, SPLC is cited by left-leaning mainstream media outlets as a credible source for information about the mainstream right, to widespread criticism.
Mainstream technology companies such as Google and Amazon have enlisted SPLC to help compile, track, and vet organizations based on alleged extremist activity. For a short time, charity aggregator Guidestar used SPLC’s hate group listings to apply so-called warning labels on 46 nonprofit organizations, but later removed the labels amid a heavy public backlash against its reliance on SPLC.
In 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins attacked the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the social-conservative advocacy group Family Research Council. In his guilty plea agreement, Corkins cited the SPLC’s website, which labels FRC a hate group for its opposition to same-sex marriage, as the reason he singled out FRC.
History and Mission
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was co-founded as a civil rights litigation group in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1970 by Morris Dees, a lawyer and direct marketing expert, and lawyer Joseph Levin, Jr. The SPLC received nonprofit status in 1971. Activist Julian Bond, who later chaired the NAACP, is also mentioned as a co-founder.
Dees and Levin spent much of their early years conducting pro bono legal services in death-penalty appeals and suing to desegregate the then-all-white Alabama Highway Patrol. In 1979, the SPLC shifted its legal strategy and began suing violent white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and its affiliates for hate crimes committed by their members. Large settlements and other legal sanctions bankrupted some of the groups and scared off many others; by the late 1980s, these groups had declined significantly in activity and influence.
The demise of the KKK and Aryan Nation prompted Dees to shift the SPLC’s mission from traditional civil rights issues to fight purported right-wing extremism. The SPLC broadened its scope from litigation to lobbying for hate crime laws and laws targeting supposed right-wing terrorism. The change was so drastic that in one instance, the entire legal staff resigned in 1986.
SPLC litigation today includes the areas of immigrant rights, prison reform, and gay and lesbian issues. The group is better known, however, for tracking alleged hate groups and extremists in the U.S. through its “Intelligence Project” publication. SPLC also maintains information on these groups on its website with a Hatewatch vertical, a Hate Map, and offers a glossy magazine titled The Year in Hate and Extremism. As the SPLC expanded its scope of activity, it also broadened its definition of hate groups to include groups with no propensity for violence, but whose peaceful political activities SPLC opposes, a decision for which the group has been criticized.
SPLC is headquartered in a 150,000 square foot, eight-story building in Montgomery, Alabama, designed by The Harmon Group, a New York-based architecture firm. The building cost $15 million and construction was completed on March 31, 2001.
SPLC has offices in four other southern cities and a total of 302 employees. In May 2017, Dees told the Colorado Springs Independent the SPLC had 48 lawyers who litigate across the country. The “Intelligence Project” employs 15 full-time and two part-time staffers.
Full-time staff leadership includes Richard Cohen, who serves as president, and Dees, a co-founder who is currently the Chief Counsel. SPLC is governed by a 15-member Board of Directors.
In its 2016 tax documents, SLPC reported $136,373,624 in revenue, $59,784,321 in expenses. It also reported net assets of $449,834,593 and endowments totaling $432,723,955.
Early funding for SPLC came through direct mail solicitation. Morris Dees was a multi-millionaire by the late 1960s, gaining his wealth through direct mail sales. He used his direct mail expertise to raise money for the 1972 presidential campaign of left-wing U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.) in exchange for the candidate’s 700,000-name campaign donor list as his payment. This list served as the basis for what became SPLC’s lucrative direct mail fundraising program.
SPLC’s direct mail program is reported to solicit funds primarily through multi-page alarmist solicitation letters. This has led to criticism both for exaggerating threats and raising more money than the organization spends on its legitimate activities. Alexander Cockburn, former editor of the left-wing magazine The Nation, wrote in 2009 that the letters have been “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.
According to IRS tax filings, SPLC raised $136,373,624 in 2016 and spent $59,784,321 or 54.8 percent of its revenue. Of its total expenses, $23,869,485, or 39.9 percent went to employee salaries, other compensation, and benefits. Fundraising expenses accounted for $12,626,830, or 21.1 percent of total expenses.
Profiting from Lawsuits
The SPLC developed another revenue stream in the 1980s by suing violent white supremist groups. In 1984, Dees sued the United Klans of America (UKA) in Mobile, Alabama on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, whose son was killed by two UKA members. Dees won a $7 million judgement against the UKA, $50,000 of which went to his client. SPLC raised another $9 million by leveraging the case with direct-mail solicitations. Former SPLC staffer Deborah Ellis, who quit SPLC in the 1980s, said of this legal strategy of grabbing headlines and exploiting verdicts through fundraising appeals, “I felt that Morris [Dees] was on the Klan kick because it was such an easy target — easy to beat in court, easy to raise big money on.”
In addition to settlements and fundraising appeals, SPLC’s fortune has amassed contributions from corporations and foundations. The table below lists the largest contributors to SPLC as recorded by Foundation Search and the Center for Public Integrity.
|SPLC Top Twelve Contributors 2000 – 2015|
|Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund||$2,307,330||2003-2015|
|Cisco Systems Foundation||$1,620,000||2001-2004|
|Public Welfare Foundation||$1,150,000||2008-2015|
|Rice Family Foundation||$785,000||2000-2015|
|Schwab Charitable Fund||$758,540||2009-2014|
|Vanguard Charitable Endowment||$747,980||2006-2014|
|W.K. Kellogg Foundation||$700,000||2010-2015|
|Source: Annual IRS Filings compiled by Foundation Search & the Center for Public Integrity|
SPLC received a number of prominent pledges from liberal celebrities and corporations after an outbreak of violence between neo-Nazi and left-wing extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia. In August 2017, actor George Clooney and his wife, Amal, announced their foundation would donate $1 million to SPLC Apple CEO Tim Cook sent an email to employees in August 2017 that the company would begin accepting donations for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and that Apple would donate $1 million each to the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League. Apple also launched a donations app for the SPLC in Apple’s iTunes digital store.
Offshore Fundraising and Investments
SPLC keeps an undisclosed amount of money in offshore bank accounts in the tax-sheltered U.K. territories of the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. SPLC also engages in fundraising activities in Africa, South America, Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Iceland, Greenland, Europe, Central America and the Caribbean.
Intelligence Project started in 1981 as a KKK-focused effort called Klanwatch. It rebranded as the Intelligence Project in 1998 to include a large variety of other allegedly extreme-right individuals, groups, and movements. Its primary product is the Intelligence Report, a quarterly magazine given for free to law enforcement officials, journalists, and news outlets. Intelligence Report identifies and tracks groups and incidents the SPLC characterizes as hate-based. As of July 2017, Intelligence Project had 15 full-time and two part-time staffers. Its reports are regularly cited by left-of-center mainstream media outlets.
The Intelligence Report features alarmed articles, often written by former USA Today reporter Mark Potok. The articles bear alarming titles such as “Rage on the Right,” “The ‘Patriot Movement’ Explodes,” “For the Radical Right, Obama Victory Brings Fury and Fear,” and “Strange Bedfellows Snuggle Under White Sheets.”
In February 2018, the Poynter Institute’s Poynter’s News University held a SPLC-funded webinar called “Covering Hate and Extremism, From the Fringes to the Mainstream: An Overview from the Southern Poverty Law Center.” The webinar featured SPLC research and was presented by Intelligence Project director Heidi Beirich.
Hatewatch, Hate Map, and Extremist Files
SPLC maintains on its website its Hatewatch blog, Hate Map, and Extremist Files all of which purport to track and expose people and groups that hold positions and engage in political activities SPLC opposes.
The SPLC Hatewatch blog contains news and headlines about groups it considers hate groups. SPLC sends its own reporters into the field to interview and research for the blog. The Hate Map keeps track of its so-called hate groups on an interactive map of the United States by geographical region, ideology, or group name, and currently lists 954 such groups. The map is compiled using information from organizations’ publications and websites, and news and law enforcement reports. SPLC circulates and promotes its map to journalists and academics since it began publishing the map in 1990.
The Extremist Files database contains profiles of what it considers prominent extremists and extremist organizations, including histories and core beliefs.
The SPLC Hate Map is regularly criticized for exaggerating its numbers. Most of the “hate groups” are chapters of nationwide organizations like the Nation of Islam. When this is taken into account, the total is much smaller. It also counts many organizations that are not obviously “hate” groups, but hold non-extremist right-wing political views.
In August 2017, SPLC joined ProPublica and the Google News Lab as part of a coalition called Documenting Hate to build the Hate News Index, a national database of hate crime-related news stories. In addition to SPLC, the coalition includes Univision News, the New York Times, WNYC, BuzzFeed News, First Draft, Meedan, New America Media, The Root, Latino USA, the Advocate, 100 Days in Appalachia, Ushahidi, and the University of Miami School of Communications.
SPLC’s classification of “hate groups” has been cited by at least one violent left-wing extremist for helping to inspire him to attempt a terrorist attack on a mainstream social conservative advocacy group. In 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins II entered the D.C. headquarters of the Family Research Council, a social-conservative group that opposes same-sex marriage and supports the right to life, carrying a pistol and nearly 100 rounds of ammunition. Corkins shot one employee non-fatally but intended to kill as many FRC staff as possible because he discovered FRC on the SPLC’s online list of anti-gay groups. The FRC is still listed on SPLC’s “Hate Map” and described at length in its “Extremist Files”.
SPLC began its classroom education project, called Teaching Tolerance, in 1991. The curriculum recommends educators talk about tolerance “as a basic American value, talk about it early, talk about it often, and talk about it in a lot of different contexts, so that when the context does seem a little bit political, it’s part of a bigger picture.”
Teaching Tolerance and its companion website, Tolerance.org, have promoted the work of controversial academic Bill Ayers, the founder of the Weather Underground extremist group and former domestic terrorist.
Perspectives for a Diverse America is a new project of Teaching Tolerance which “marries anti-bias social justice content with the rigor of the Common Core State Standards.” The program is designed to teach “Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action” themes, providing course materials and ideas that meet Common Core standards.
In February 2018, SPLC circulated results of its “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery” survey. The survey of high school seniors concluded many young people know little about slavery’s origins and the government’s role in perpetuating it. The survey also suggests educators and textbook-makers are avoiding slavery’s hard truths and lasting impact.
2018 Supreme Court Nominee
Following the Trump administration’s nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, the SPLC lobbied against the nomination, claiming that Kavanaugh and the organizations that supported him are “committed to a hard-right agenda.” The SPLC engaged in weekly call-ins, reaching out to Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Susan Collins (R-ME), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Doug Jones (D-AL).
Ignoring Left-Wing Extremism
SPLC has faced criticism for failing to track leftist political violence. When five Occupy Wall Street members were arrested for attempting to set bombs at a Cleveland, Ohio bridge in 2012, National Review reporter Charles C.W. Cooke questioned an SPLC representative to determine if SPLC would track left-wing extremism as it purports to track right-wing extremism. The SPLC representative responded, “They were Anarchists… We’re not really set up to cover the extreme Left.”
Attacks on Mainstream Figures
In April 2018, SPLC removed its “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” from its website after Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim who defected from Islamist extremism to become a Liberal Democrats politician and advocate for reform within Islam, threatened legal action over his inclusion on the list. Published in December 2016, the report purported to list promoters of hateful propaganda. The guide also listed Somali-born former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an author and former member of the Dutch parliament for the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) who stridently opposes Islamism and the practice of female genital mutilation, as an “anti-Muslim extremist.”
On February 14, 2019, Gavin McInnes, the founder of the right-wing group called the Proud Boys, filed a defamation lawsuit against the SPLC. The lawsuit was in response to the SPLC’s labeling of Proud Boys as a “hate group.” McInnes argues that by calling him and his group misogynistic and Islamophobic, the SPLC has personally cost him economic opportunities and prompted various social media platforms to ban him.
The SPLC once listed U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Ben Carson, a surgeon and Republican activist who would later serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration, among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists on its extremist lists. SPLC backed down after putting Carson on the list in 2014, removing his name and apologizing.
In August 2017, CNN published an article entitled “Here are all the active hate groups where you live,” using the SPLC’s list of hate groups and supposed hate groups. Following criticism of the article (which lumped actual hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan together with mainstream and right-of-center organizations), CNN changed the title of the article to “The Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups,” in order to identify the source of the information as SPLC and not CNN. An editor’s note accompanied the change, which read:
Editor’s Note: The headline on this story has been changed to more closely align with the content of the piece, which clearly indicates that the data on hate groups is from the Southern Poverty Law Center. This story has also been updated to provide direct links to the full list from the SPLC as opposed to publishing the entire list here, and context has been added regarding some groups who oppose their inclusion on the SPLC list.
Associations with Ostensibly Nonpartisan Organizations
In June 2017, the online charity clearinghouse Guidestar added “warning labels” to 46 charitable organizations accused by SPLC of spreading hate. Less than one month later, Guidestar removed the labels amid immediate outcry by conservative groups, which objected to listing groups targeted as hateful for opposing same-sex marriage. Representatives of conservative organizations sent a letter to Guidestar describing the SPLC’s hate group list as a political weapon and “ad hoc, partisan, and agenda-driven.”
In June 2018, the Daily Caller revealed that SPLC is among the 300 non-governmental organizations and government agencies in YouTube’s “Trusted Flaggers” program, helping YouTube identify extremist content. The SPLC is the only participant in the program given the authority to determine the eligibility of other organizations.
SPLC is currently used by Amazon to vet charitable organizations allowed to take part in its AmazonSmile program, which donates 0.5 percent of eligible purchases to organizations chosen by customers. Amazon removed the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a prominent social conservative public interest law firm which has won cases before the Supreme Court, from its AmazonSmile program in May 2018, citing SPLC’s listing of ADF as a “hate group.”
Facebook and Twitter have also confirmed that the SPLC is a member of their respective “hate speech” policing groups. The social media companies have made a point to say that the SPLC is only one of many organizations consulted.
The SPLC has been criticized by conservatives and liberals as hypocritical for seeking millions of dollars in donations instead of the alleviation of poverty. In 2012, the Daily Kos, a left-of-center website, criticized the SPLC for “pimping out the word poverty” in order to solicit millions of dollars in donations. In particular, the article pointed to the organization’s $238 million in assets reported for 2011 and offshore bank accounts, writing: “Folks living in poverty across America must feel so empowered to know this organization is fighting to lift them up from their poor economic status, by shipping unknown of U.S. dollars (thousands? millions?) to two tax havens abroad.”
Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund
In late 2018, the SPLC started an advocacy group called the SPLC Action Fund in order to engage in lobbying for legislation and ballot initiatives.  While donations to the Action Fund are not tax-deductible (suggesting that the Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization), there is no official record of the new group in the IRS database as of early 2019. 
Morris Dees is co-founder of the SPLC. While still in college, Dees and business partner Millard Fuller created the Fuller & Dees Marketing Group. His former partner admits the pair shared an “overriding purpose of making a pile of money” and becoming “independently rich.” The company grew into one of the largest publishers in the South and the largest cookbook publisher in the U.S. Fuller and Dees parted ways with the sale of the company to Time Warner in 1969. Fuller went on to found Habitat for Humanity, and later the Fuller Center for Housing before his death in 2009. Dees went on to join lawyer Joseph Levin, Jr. to found the SPLC. In 1998, Dees was named to the Direct Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame. Dees’ total compensation in 2017 was $396,136.
Joseph Levin, Jr. is an SPLC co-founder and legal director. In 1976, he left SPLC to work on President Jimmy Carter’s transition team, then worked in the Carter administration as Chief Counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. After leaving government, he worked in private practice until 1996, then returned to SPLC. He has served as board chair, president and CEO, and most recently, general counsel. He retired in 2016.
Richard Cohen is the SPLC president and CEO. Cohen joined the SPLC in 1986 and has led the group in numerous legal victories including a $37.6 million judgment in 1998 against the Ku Klux Klan for burning down a church in rural South Carolina. Cohen also spearheaded the SPLC’s ultimately successful efforts to remove controversial Alabama Supreme Court chief judge Roy Moore (R), both for his refusal to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments on the steps of his court and for attempting to preserve Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriages in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling mandating recognition of such unions. Cohen’s 2017 total compensation was $390,686.
Mark Potok is editor-in-chief of SPLC’s quarterly Intelligence Report and HateWatch blog. Potok has worked for the SPLC since 1997 and is one of the SPLC’s most visible faces, appearing on TV news shows, making speeches and often serving as SPLC’s spokesman. In 2011, Potok claimed on CNN that far-right extremism was a greater threat than radical Islamist extremism. Potok’s total compensation in 2017 was $164,926.