News and Commentary

Inside The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Sexism, Racism Controversy

Two weeks ago, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (a left-wing organization ostensibly painted as a civil rights group) was fired for undisclosed reasons. A week later, we learned the firing occurred as employees within the organization alleged racism and sexism. A few days after that, the president of the organization resigned.

Now we have an inside look at the turmoil within the center, thanks to The New York Times, whose reporters spoke to current and former employees, board members, and “close observers,” and who also reviewed “internal documents and public records.” One has to read through paragraphs of glowing praise for the center as a “civil rights group” and its monitoring of “the radical right” without any pushback or questioning about what it considers “the radical right,” but there is good information in the piece.

It turns out the ex-co-founder, Morris Dees, was investigated on two separate occasions for “inappropriate conduct” and was disciplined each time. He also appears to have a reputation for sexual harassment in the organization.

“Several women who have worked at the center said they were cautioned against being alone in a room with him. Others who worked there said they had witnessed inappropriate touching or heard him make lewd remarks,” the Times reported.

Jason Brooks, who was a paralegal in Montgomery, AL in 2016, told the Times he heard Dees tell black women “I like chocolate,” though the co-founder denied the claim. Brooks also said he witnessed Dees put his hands on women’s shoulders while standing behind them.

Dees confirmed to the Times that he was investigated in 2017 for making a female employee “uncomfortable.” He claimed he merely touched her shoulder and asked about her visible tattoos, pointing to his own. This, he said, was the basis of her complaint.

Beyond the sexism allegations, SPLC employees also alleged a culture of racism in an organization with a lily white leadership team. A former staff member, Dana Vickers Shelley, who the Times described as one of the highest-ranking black staffers at SPLC, told the news paper the organization wasn’t “even trying to be diverse in terms of reflecting the people who they served.”

Shelley said that when she resigned, former president Richard Cohen asked what a black subordinate staffer would do. When Shelley said she didn’t know, Cohen allegedly told her “Well, the 13th Amendment says she can do whatever she wants.”

Other former employees told the Times that “racially callous remarks” were common, and complained of wage disparities and little ability for minority staffers to advance in the organization. One former employee, a black attorney, Amir Whitaker, said SPLC hired an outside speaker to address concerns within the organization of racial bias. He told the Times that the speaker asked at one point: “What if people are calling you a racist or saying things are racism but they’re just wrong?” He took this as a dismissal of the complaints.

The SPLC and its media supporters bill it as an anti-hate group, but it’s now facing accusations of discrimination against the very people it claims to help.

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