Turmoil at the Southern Poverty Law Center

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 9th day of April, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: reining in hate.

Maybe you’ve heard of the SPLC, the Southern Poverty Law Center. It’s produced long list of churches and conservative organizations that it describes as “hate groups.” These are organizations you probably know like Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Research Council.

SPLC calls them hate groups because of their opposition to same-sex marriage and other issues of LGBT interest.

REICHARD: What SPLC thinks might not be such a big deal if it weren’t for its influence with corporate America. It’s  persuaded businesses like Amazon to cut ties with any organization branded with its “hate group” label. Conservative and Christian groups have long protested the hate group list, to no avail. But an internal crisis at SPLC could give more weight to their complaints.

WORLD Radio’s Katie Gaultney joins us now to explain why.

Good morning, Katie.


REICHARD: The Southern Poverty Law Center has made headlines recently for some very troubling problems. What’s going on over there?

GAULTNEY: Yeah, it’s been a tough few weeks for the organization, that’s for sure. In mid-March of this year, it fired co-founder Morris Dees for what it broadly called a failure to adhere to the organization’s “values.” The Los Angeles Times did some reporting and found Dees had faced accusations of workplace misconduct. The exact nature of those accusations isn’t clear, but the LA Times did find that many employees within the SPLC—which has predominantly white leaders—are unhappy with what the media outlet called “workplace mistreatment of women and people of color.” This from an organization that began nearly half a century ago with the goal of exposing racism during the civil rights movement. A week after Dees’ ouster, president Richard Cohen and legal director Rhonda Brownstein announced their resignations, too. So a lot of upheaval there.

REICHARD: And tell us more about how the Family Research Council fits into all of this.

GAULTNEY: Sure. The FRC pulled together 67 conservative organizations to publish a letter urging media, corporations, social media companies, and financial institutions to stop relying on the SPLC’s hate group list. I spoke with FRC’s director of partnerships, Sarah Perry, and here’s what she told me.

PERRY: We really find it nothing short of shocking that an organization professing to be a moral authority on racism, sexism, homophobia… This is an organization that was committing really unspeakable harassments and the degradation of, among others, women and African Americans within its own ranks.

So basically, FRC is striking while the iron’s hot. The SPLC is under a lot of public scrutiny for those negative headlines. And Sarah Perry said FRC wants a chance to minister to people on the margins. But she said they can’t do it if media organizations refuse to talk to them because they’re lumped in with actual hate groups like the KKK.

REICHARD: So, what result is the FRC expecting by confronting the SPLC head-on?

GAULTNEY: FRC and other groups basically want public institutions to regard the SPLC with a heavy dose of caution. But FRC also wants the IRS to look into the SPLC’s tax-exempt status. And in fact, just last week, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote a letter to the IRS encouraging it to do exactly that.

SPLC has amassed more than $500 million dollars in assets, and its most recent financial statement shows it holds $121 million offshore in non-U.S. equity funds. Cotton wrote that the organization’s history of defaming reputable organizations, plus the recent accusations of racism and sexism, may show taxpayer dollars may not be well-stewarded by the SPLC. He said that makes its non-profit status deserve a closer look.

REICHARD: Do FRC and these other groups hope to put SPLC out of business?

GAULTNEY: Sarah Perry told me that’s not the goal at all. FRC ultimately wants to see the group return to its roots, and really call out racism and injustice, not target groups that hold to traditional, conservative viewpoints.

PERRY: And what was once a very storied operation and they did make their start in Alabama, financially bankrupting the Klan. And these were really laudable original aims of the SPLC, and they did do excellent work in the late 70s and early 80s.

We want the SPLC to do the work that it originally began with. And that is making sure that there is no racial discrimination in the United States.

REICHARD: Well, hard to argue with that. Katie Gaultney is a WORLD Radio correspondent based in Dallas. Katie, thanks for this report.

GAULTNEY: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Photo/Southern Poverty Law Center)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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