When I started writing about hate on the Internet around 10 years ago, it was small. Donald Black, who learned his Web-design skills inside, was the pioneer. Wikipedia describes Don as follows:
Stephen Donald Black (born July 28, 1953) is an American white nationalist. He is the founder, and current webmaster, of the Stormfront internet forum. He was a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan and a member of the American Nazi Party in the 1970s. He was convicted in 1981 for attempted armed overthrow of the Dominican government in violation of the U.S.Neutrality Act.[5
Black founded Stormfront in 1995. The website is seen as being the internet’s first major hate site, and remains one of the most popular. Stormfront featured the writings of William Luther Pierce and David Duke, as well as works by the Institute for Historical Review. Initially, along with these articles, Stormfront housed a library of white pride, neo-Nazi and white power skinhead graphics for downloading, and a number of links to other white nationalist websites.
In a 1998 interview for the alternative weekly newspaper Miami New Times, Black is quoted as saying “We want to take America back. We know a multicultural Yugoslav nation can’t hold up for too long. Whites won’t have any choice but to take military action. It’s our children whose interests we have to defend.” In December 2007, Black gained attention for donating money to Ron Paul‘s 2008 presidential run.
Black received some media attention in 2008 when the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that his wife Chloe works as an executive assistant for The Fanjul Brothers‘ Florida Crystals company. Her job duties included acting as the spokesperson for a charter school “to lift underprivileged black and Hispanic children out of poverty.” The story was successively picked up by Gawker, the New York Post, thePalm Beach Post, and Fox News, and resulted in Black being criticized by some other white nationalists.
The Southern Poverty Law Center by the way is also an agency of dubious moral merit. Or at least, so said Ken Silverstein in 2000. See “The Church of Morris Dees” in a November edition of Harper’s Magazine.
But Black nor Dees nor Abraham Foxman of the ADL aren’t the only one’s who have been making a tidy profit from the hate movement sweeping the West.
Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer – a funny name for a dark Lebanese Catholic – have also in recent years been cranking the same money machine, especially now we are in post-911.
To get away from Geller for a mo’, this is what makes me cynical about groups that claim to fight hate but use the issues for self-serving reasons:
III. The Cult of Morris Dees
Morris Dees, who co-founded the SPLC, is a vivid figure. To his admirers, he comes from the heroic mold of Atticus Finch, the Alabama lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird who fought courageously for justice and human dignity. But a closer look at Dees shows a record of cynical exploitation of the idealism and generosity of people around the country.
In the early 1990s, reporters at the Montgomery Advertiser, the city’s largest newspaper, had friends at the nearby Southern Poverty Law Center. Both groups were young, idealistic, and eager to make a difference.
“We hung out with them,” said Jim Tharpe, the managing editor at the time, told a 1999 Harvard journalism seminar on the challenges of covering non-profit organizations. “There aren’t a lot of young liberals in Montgomery, as you might imagine, and those are the people we associated with.” He said the reporters were “essentially boosters for the SPLC; we parroted their press releases.”75
Tharpe said contacts led to tips from disillusioned former SPLC employees who suggested: “You guys really ought to look at this place. Something’s just not right there. I came here thinking this place was one thing, and I’m leaving thinking it’s another.”
In 1994, the Advertiser published a nine-part series that pulled back the veil on the Southern Poverty Law Center and its charismatic leader, Morris Dees. In the series, which drew not only from the experiences of former staffers disillusioned by their time at the center but also from attorneys who had worked with Dees, he was described with such terms as phony, egotistical, ruthless, petty, and amoral. He was portrayed as a man motivated primarily by self-aggrandizement, “who carefully grooms his image to appeal to generous donors.”76
The paper revealed that:
- The SPLC had moved away from its early work in such poverty law fields as death-penalty cases, employment rights, and voting rights because Dees had learned that he could take in more money by exaggerating the size and menace of the Klan. An editorial that accompanied the series said that while the Klan “deserves the scorn of all reasonable people,” it had become “a farce” and that center critics were justified in saying that it “focuses on the anti-Klan theme not because the Klan is a major threat, but because it plays well with liberal donors.”77 “The market is still wide open for the product, which is black pain and white guilt,” said one of the SPLC’s disillusioned former attorneys, a black woman.78
- Black attorneys who had worked at the center complained of systematic discrimination against them at the center. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree said: “My students have come back with disappointing experiences…. It’s particularly disappointing to encounter racism at a civil rights organization.”79
- The SPLC raised huge amounts of money from fundraising campaigns that described urgent needs but used much of the money to pile up an enormous endowment and pay handsome salaries to its top executives.
- Three organizations that monitored charities nationwide “criticized the Law Center for misleading donors and spending too little on programs.”80 Donors to the SPLC often had no idea of its vast wealth and were duped into thinking that it was tottering on the brink of financial disaster. In fact, it operated from an office building so stylish that local wags sarcastically called it “The Poverty Palace.”
The series also showed that Dees was a relentless self-promoter who tolerated no dissent from center staff. Meanwhile, the board of directors consisted of handpicked cronies ready to rubber-stamp his decisions. A former staff attorney who had worked at other non-profits called it “the least independent board of directors I’ve ever seen.”81
Former business partner Millard Fuller said of Dees: “He does not know how to treat people. He leaves a trail of bodies behind him, of broken relationships. It’s just how he treats people.”82
That trail now includes four ex-wives. In 1979, one of them filed divorce-court documents alleging in explicit detail that Dees conducted lurid affairs during their marriage. Dees complained that he was the victim of a vicious and reckless campaign, charging that his second wife had:
engaged in numerous evidentiary forays that can be described as old fashioned “cheap shots.” Her strategy was to accuse the husband of every inflammatory act she could imagine, hoping that it would prejudice the court. Her approach was to present a bald-faced allegation and then let the husband try to disprove the charges. The accusations are very similar to the old unanswerable cliché, “When did you stop beating your wife?”83
Dees’ critics, including but not limited to the white supremacist groups with which he has done battle, have gleefully spread those charges via the Internet. It is ironic that an organization led by a man who has felt the sting of such charges has played a central role in a highly public campaign of cheap shots and character assassination.
The SPLC’s tactics reflect Dees’ appreciation for the monetary magnetism of ideological intensity. He learned about it as he raised money for the presidential campaigns of George McGovern, Gary Hart, Jimmy Carter, and Ted Kennedy. In 1988, Dees told The Progressive magazine he had hesitated before agreeing to become finance director for Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign because he thought Carter’s moderation would be unattractive to direct mail donors:
“You can’t raise money through the mail for just any candidate,” said Dees. “You’ve got to have a candidate who’s way out on the extremes — a Reagan, a Wallace, a McGovern, a Goldwater. The people who will give big money through the mail are either on the Far Right or the Far Left. They’re true believers. You can’t fire them up with a middle-of-the-road cause or candidate. You’ve got to have someone who can arouse people.”84
Bright Light and Deep Shadow
Co-founded by Dees in 1971, the SPLC won admiration for a series of civil rights accomplishments. For example, it forced the Montgomery YMCA to integrate and won a court order requiring the Alabama State Troopers to hire one black officer for each white until blacks represented 25 percent of the force.
Dees built a national reputation by taking on the Ku Klux Klan. He was the first attorney to pursue the Klan in civil courts, winning cases in which he argued that the Klan had incited violence and should be held responsible for the criminality of its members.
Dees’ most celebrated victory came in 1987, when a jury returned a $7 million verdict against the United Klans of America for the brutal murder of a young black man. As the Montgomery Advertiserreported, the SPLC “used nationwide fund-raising letters to create the image of a mighty Klan that actually had $7 million” and was forced to pay that amount to the victim’s mother.
In fact, the organization was so financially weak that she received less than $52,000, most of which she used to pay off an interest-free loan she had received from the SPLC. Meanwhile, the SPLC collected about $9 million in 1986 and 1987 as it featured the lawsuit in its fund-raising letters. Even today the law center still cites the case as it appeals for financial support.
Dees’ courtroom victories have won him nationwide acclaim and honors. In 1987 he was named Trial Lawyer of the Year by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. He also received the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Award from the National Education Association and the Roger Baldwin Award from the American Civil Liberties Union. He is often invited to speak on university campuses. In 2006, the University of Alabama Law School announced that it was establishing the Morris Dees Justice Award to honor attorneys “who uphold the qualities of courage, compassion, innovative leadership, public service, and ethical excellence.”
Even the Montgomery Advertiser’s 1994 investigative series, which presented an overwhelmingly negative view of Dees as a cynical opportunist posing as a righteous crusader, gave voice to some Dees admirers.
“Given his talent and skills and brilliance, he could have picked the safe way and gone the corporate route,” said a woman who had worked at the SPLC in 1986 and 1987. “That’s not what he did. He’s taken a very controversial and dangerous position by saying, ‘I’m going to attack racists.’”85
In an interview in 2010, Ray Jenkins, a journalist who worked many years at the Advertiser and later became an editor at the Baltimore Sun, offered this accounting of the SPLC under Dees: “They’ve done some good work; it’s just that Dees’ ego is so smarmy that it gets all over you and you can’t abide him.” Jenkins said he has an indelible memory of Dees parking his Rolls Royce at a spot reserved for him at the SPLC.86
Born in the rural South in 1936, Dees became a student of the Klansmen who were his targets. “A lot of these people have paranoid personalities bred from basically family problems when they were children,” he said. “They’re looking for love and affection.” He added, “If you look at a Klan roster, just about everybody…can be an exalted something. It makes them feel important.”87
Dees was also driven by a nagging need from his childhood, which planted in him a tense determination to rise above his family’s humble background. “Our genealogy and our bank account didn’t measure up,” Dees wrote in his autobiography. “We certainly weren’t as poor as many of the people in the county…. But we were wealthy poor, and in some ways that’s worse than being dirt poor.”88
Dees was determined to be rich. He had entrepreneurial instincts even as a young boy. “I always had a feeling for making money,” he told People magazine in 1991, recalling that he would buy a pig for a dollar, fatten it up, sell it for $12, and buy 10 more.89 The same article described Dees in his SPLC days as having such a “soothing drawl and persuasive manner” that he “can get the sweetin’ out of gingerbread without breaking the crust.”
As a student at the University of Alabama, Dees became business partners with Millard Fuller, a sharecropper’s son who would eventually found Habitat for Humanity and bitterly observe that Dees left in his wake “a trail of bodies…of broken relationships.”
Dees and Fuller built a thriving business by obtaining their schoolmates’ birthdays and home addresses and writing letters to their parents, offering to deliver a freshly baked cake for the big day. “I learned to write sales copy, to design an offer, and to mail at the most opportune time,” Dees said. Later Dees and Fuller struck gold in the cookbook business, also built on direct-mail solicitations. Their first title, “Favorite Recipes of Home Economics Teachers,” sold 250,000 copies. After selling the business, Dees settled into a 6,000 square-foot home on a 200-acre estate.
Dees took his Midas touch to the 1972 presidential campaign of South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. Defying conventional wisdom that called for incisive brevity in the direct-mail game, Dees sent out a fundraising letter that ran to seven pages. Its magic lay in a feeling of intimacy and urgency that tapped his Baptist roots. He wrote: “Like the evangelist who came to our summer revivals, I asked in McGovern’s name for the reader to ‘join hands with me now…. I believe this is a time to heal.”90
It was a call to join a crusade. To the astonishment of the political world, it was a huge success, bringing a windfall to McGovern. The South Dakota senator was so grateful that he let Dees use the mailing list of his nearly 700,000 donors to seek contributions for the fledgling SPLC.
Thirteen years later, when the Montgomery Advertiser exposé was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Dees called on McGovern and other political friends to write letters on his behalf against the Advertiser. Bill Kovach one of the country’s most esteemed journalists and former curator of the Nieman journalism fellowship program at Harvard, said he believed that the letter-writing campaign was unprecedented in the history of the Pulitzers.91 The Advertiser did not win the award.
Lacking the distribution that the paper’s website provides instantaneously today, the series received little national attention at the time. Editor Jim Tharpe said five years later that the exposé had little effect on the Dees fundraising machine, which was directed primarily at donors who lived far away, especially in the Northeast and on the West coast. Dees continued to raise tens of millions of dollars every year. In 1998, the Direct Marketing Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame.
Duping Donors, Cashing In
The deceptions that the Montgomery Advertiser described have been a consistent part of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s strategy to build its reserve fund. It received $32,395,733 in contributions in 2008, an average of $88,755 per day. At the end of the 2008 fiscal year, during which its investments lost more than $48 million, the fund had $174,200,000.92
While Dees was raised a Southern Baptist, he suggested to some donors that he had a more diverse background. For example, in a 1985 fundraising pitch for funds to protect SPLC staff from threats of Klan violence, Dees made conspicuous use of his middle name — Seligman, which he received in honor of a family friend. A former SPLC attorney told The Progressive magazine that Dees signed letters with his middle name in mailings to zip codes that had many Jewish residents.93 The article was titled “How Morris Dees Got Rich Fighting the Klan.” A former SPLC employee told the Montgomery Advertiser that the donor base was “anchored by wealthy Jewish contributors on the East and West coasts.”94
Attorney Tom Turnipseed, a former Dees associate, told Cox News Service, “Morris loves to raise money. Some of his gimmicks are just so transparent, but they’re good.”995
Turnipseed described a fundraising letter whose return envelope carried “about six different stamps.” The purpose of the ruse was to present the appearance of an organization struggling to keep going. As Turnipseed noted: “It was like they had to cobble them all together to come up with 35 cents.”
Writing in Harper’s magazine in 2000, investigative reporter Ken Silverstein reported that the SPLC was “the wealthiest civil rights group in America.” He also noted that Dees had broken a series of promises to end fundraising and live off its endowment once it had reached a threshold level.96
Wrote Silverstein: “Morris Dees doesn’t need your financial support. The SPLC is already the wealthiest civil rights group in America … . The American Institute of Philanthropy gives the SPLC one of the worst ratings of any group it monitors.”
Silverstein noted that Dees’ salary was tens of thousands of dollars more than the salary paid to directors of organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It amounted to a quarter of the annual budget of Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights, whose annual caseload included dozens of death-penalty cases.
Dees may believe his tactics are harmless embellishments, minor manipulations justified by his altruistic mission to challenge hate and “teach tolerance” through a program that sends educational materials to schools across the country. He might apply the same rationalization to a deception cited by USA Todayin 1996 as an example of his exaggeration of the threat of hate groups. The paper reported that “in a recent report on arsons at black churches in the South, his Klanwatch newsletter included five 1990 fires in Kentucky. But Klanwatch omitted a significant fact: the fires were set by a black man.”97
Taking Account of Morris Dees
A few journalists, mostly writing in liberal publications, have described a long history of hustling, hypocrisy, and hucksterism at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of [hate] groups than the millionaire huckster, Morris Dees,” wrote JoAnn Wypijewski of The Nation magazine in 2001.98
Ripping the SPLC as “puffed up crusaders,” Wypijewski wrote: “Hate sells; poor people don’t, which is why readers who go to the SPLC’s website will find only a handful of cases on such non-lucrative causes as fair housing, worker safety, or healthcare, many of those from the 1970s and 1980s. Why the organization continues to keep ‘Poverty’ (or even ‘Law’) in its name can be ascribed only to nostalgia or a cynical understanding of the marketing possibilities in class guilt.”
In 2009, liberal journalist Alexander Cockburn called Dees the “arch-salesman of hate-mongering.” Under a headline that labeled Dees the “King of the Hate Business,” he said Dees thrived by “selling the notion there’s a right resurgence out there in the hinterland with massed legions of haters, ready to march down Main Street draped in Klan robes, a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’ tucked under one arm and a Bible under the other … . Ever since 1971, U.S. Postal Service mailbags have bulged with his fundraising letters, scaring dollars out of the pockets of trembling liberals aghast at his lurid depictions of hate-sodden America.”99
Jesuit humanities professor Raymond A. Schroth, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, described Dees’ manipulation this way: “He focuses on a real problem and packages it to suit his purposes. If the problem is nuanced, complicated … he provides a prism, based partly on fear, through which we can view the issue: The Internet is out of control; hate groups are poisoning the World Wide Web. His Southern Poverty Law Center, with your help, will save you.”100
The law center’s publicity machine continues to deify Dees as an aging but tireless patriarch of a national movement. On December 15, 2009 — Dees’ 73rd birthday — SPLC donors received an e-mail that featured the SPLC’s trademark concoction of joyful celebration, somber sentiment, cold commerce, and cult-like glorification of Dees. It hailed the healing, redemptive power of giving him money:
Spirits are unusually high today at the Southern Poverty Law Center — we’re celebrating Morris’s birthday and his commitment to justice that has made our work possible. Morris’s courage in standing up to hate and intolerance — and the personal risks he has taken while pursuing justice on behalf of hate victims — have inspired millions … . Please take a moment to honor him by sending a personalized birthday message along with a special tax-deductible gift to support his work. We’ll make sure he receives your message. Your support of Morris’s and the SPLC’s fight for justice and tolerance is crucial. Standing together, we’ll be a powerful force against those who seek to split us along racial and ethnic lines.
Dees has merged his packaged saintliness with a single-minded determination to prevail, whether in his seduction of donors or in his fights with the Klan. As he told the Los Angeles Times, “We absolutely take no prisoners. When we get into a legal fight we go all the way.”
Dees brought that attitude to a 2004 battle for control of the board at the Sierra Club. Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm was part of an effort to get the club to return to a policy that would reduce immigration to limit population growth. Lamm, a member of the FAIR board, was a candidate in the election of Sierra Club board members, as was Frank Morris, the former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation who sat on the board of CIS. The third candidate who favored reduced immigration was David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
Lamm, Morris, and Pimentel drew support from such prestigious figures as former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), the founder of Earth Day, and E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biodiversity expert. All shared the conviction best expressed by legendary former Sierra Club director David Brower when he resigned from the Sierra Club board in 2000 with a denunciation of the board’s neutrality on immigration policy: “Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us, and immigration is part of that problem,” Brower said. “It has to be addressed.” He added this denunciation of the board: “The world is burning and all I hear from them is the music of violins. The planet is being trashed, but the board has no real sense of urgency.”101
Morris Dees was no environmentalist, but he could not tolerate such errant liberalism. He also ran for the board. Instead of engaging in a debate about the environmental consequences of immigration, Dees resorted to demonization and sloganeering. He called their efforts “the greening of hate,”102 a smear he presented with no sense of irony. Spurning the notion that there could be legitimate reasons to limit immigration, the environmentalist newcomer attacked the motives and morality of opponents who had long and distinguished histories of environmental activism.
Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope joined the attack, telling the Washington Post that if the club favored reduced immigration, “we would be perceived as assisting people whose motivations are racist.”103 Such accusations infuriated Gaylord Nelson, long a staunch civil rights advocate and one of the Senate’s most prominent liberals. Said Nelson, “People have been silenced because they are scared to death of being a racist. But racism has nothing to do with it. It’s a question of numbers.”104
The numbers in the election didn’t work for Lamm, Morris, and Pimentel. In a turnout that amounted to 23 percent of the Sierra Club’s members, they were handily defeated.
Dees also lost in his bid for a seat, but the election had given him a platform to hurl charges of racism and play on a widespread fear in environmental circles that was described in a New York Times story that noted that California’s population in the 1980s had grown by a “staggering 6.1 million.” “Although a few environmentalists raised doubts about how many more people the state could absorb,” the Timesreported, “the subject of controlling population was taboo in polite circles, where people feared being accused of racism.”105
Now the SPLC has joined the National Council of La Raza, America’s Voice, and other advocates of expansive immigration policies to protest against the appearance of FAIR and CIS in the immigration debate. Late in 2009, Morris Dees was writing letters to donors about his righteous commitment.
“These are difficult and troubling times for our country,”106 Dees intoned in a solemn message that included the SPLC’s usual ingredients: a tally of dangers, a claim that the SPLC is taking them on, and an invitation to join the fight by sending a check.
Dees enlisted the idealistic, the affluent, and the gullible. He wrote:
More than 900 hate groups — many of them masquerading as mainstream organizations — operate across the nation … . In times like these, it is important for concerned citizens like you to take a stand for fairness and justice … . But without your help, and that of other concerned people, none of our work would be possible.107
An article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology said the SPLC’s work “illustrates how the hate crime epidemic has been constructed on the basis of dubious statistics.”108 Laird Wilcox said many of the groups listed by the SPLC have existed solely as post office box addresses. “Others are one- or two-person operations or nothing more than a rumor they’ve heard about,” he said. “Most of the groups that actually existed were small and marginal.”
Included in the December 2009 fundraising packet was a story that claimed hate crimes against Latinos are on the rise, and blamed it on “anti-immigrant propaganda [that] has increased on both the margins and in the mainstream of society … . At the same time as anti-Latino violence has spiked, the SPLC has reported a major increase in hate groups — from 602 in 2000 to 888 in 2007, a 48 percent jump.”109
Then came the clincher: “This growth has been driven almost entirely by the immigration debate.”
That comment, claiming that the debate itself breeds hate, is at the anti-democratic and hypocritical core of the SPLC’s immigration politics. Debate is not the essence of democracy in the worldview of the SPLC. It is a toxin to be suppressed. To stop the hate, we must stop the debate.
Meanwhile, the SPLC’s public relations operation hails Dees as a figure of uncommon dedication and saintly altruism, a fearless protector standing like a rock against the hateful hordes. The Winter 2008 issue of the SPLC Report, which reported that the immigration debate itself was causing violence, was an eight-page tabloid. It included seven photographs of Morris Dees.