By David B. Kopel
From Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture and the Law (Gregg Lee Carter ed., ABC-CLIO 2002).
Klanwatch Project was an operation of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC),
which is based in
Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in
political fund-raising was in its infancy when
In 1999, the SPLC earned $17 million in income from its investments, and raised $27 million from donors. The same year, the SPLC spent $13 million on its program, approximately half of which was spent on producing direct-mail solicitations and paying for postage. The American Institute of Philanthropy gives the SPLC a D rating because of the SPLC’s large excess of income over program expenditures, and because of the SPLC’s refusal to disclose basic financial information.
During the 1970s, the main focus of the SPLC was litigation, and the SPLC won some notable cases, including forcing the Alabama state troopers to adopt an affirmative action program, requiring cotton mills to better working conditions for employees with brown lung disease, and changing the tax structure in Kentucky.
In 1981, the SPLC began its Klanwatch Project, which was later expanded to cover a variety of different targets. In 1986, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s entire legal staff quit, upset that the SPLC was no longer practicing poverty law, but was instead focused on the Ku Klux Klan.
Although the SPLC did death penalty legal work in
the 1970s, and still touts its “innovative” work in that field, the SPLC no
longer takes death penalty cases. Critics charge that the SPLC’s abandonment of
such cases is meant to avoid scaring off the SPLC’s mostly-white donor base.
The Southern Center for Human Rights (http://schr.org/center/), an Atlanta
group specializing in death penalty defense, is one of a number of poverty law
organizations which are upset that the SPLC raises so much money, and does so
little (in their view) for poor people and people of color. In 1996, the Human
Rights group’s director Stephen Bright denounced
In 1994, the SPLC created a separate militia watch unit, dedicated to the militia movement and the patriot movement. Today, these SPLC units have been merged into the Intelligence Project.
The Klanwatch Project had proved to
be a tremendous revenue center for the SPLC, but even greater fund-raising
success resulted from the rise of the militia movement, and from the
The Intelligence Project publishes a quarterly Intelligence Reportmagazine of information about its target groups. Staff members conduct training for police, schools, and local groups. The Intelligence Project reports that its staff has collected “dossiers” on thousands of suspected militia members or militia sympathizers, and has placed infiltrators in the militia movement. The Intelligence Project supplies information to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
Intelligence Project staff also lobby state and federal lawmakers, in support of a variety of laws, such as “Militia Training” bills to prohibit group firearms training or use accompanied by political discussion. The Intelligence Project is frequently quoted in American and foreign media as an expert source on the patriot movement, militias, hate groups, and others. The Project’s periodic reports on the numbers and names of such groups often attract substantial media coverage. As an expert source in reported stories, as a background influence on media attitudes, and through direct mail communication with a large donor base, the SPLC has played a very major role in shaping what much of the American public believes about the militia movement and the patriot movement.
Hate on Trial: The Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi, co-authored with Steve Fiffer, tells the story of a civil lawsuits that the SPLC brought against Tom Metzger.
Highly publicized anti-Klan and anti-Nazi suits are the SPLC’s most prominent legal work. The most famous came in 1987, when the SPLC recovered $51,875 for Beula Mae Donald, the mother of a black man who had been lynched by two members of the United Klans of America. The SPLC garnered $9 million from fund-raising related to the case, and has been criticized by some people for not sharing any of the fund-raising revenue with Mrs. Donald. The SPLC direct mail letters touted the size of the verdict awarded by the jury – a spectacular seven million dollars – but did not mention that the Klans’ seizable assets amounted to less than one percent of the nominal verdict.
The book claimed that the “citzens’
militia movement. . .led to the most destructive act
of terrorism in our nation’s history” – the April 1995
Gathering Storm also promoted gun control, and argued that the Second Amendment guarantees no individual right.
The book was heavily praised by New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal, President Jimmy Carter, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and by most reviewers.
Mainstream press coverage of the SPLC has generally been extremely favorable; Dees is subject of an admiring made-for-television movie biography, >"Line of Fire", in which Corbin Bernson portrays Dees.
The SPLC was, however, sharply criticized in an award-winning investigative 1994 series in the Montgomery Advertiser. The series accused the SPLC of taking in far more than it spends, of enjoying lavish offices (the current SPLC office is locally known as the “Poverty Palace,” and a new $6 million building will soon become the new headquarters) and high salaries (Dees makes $275,000 a year, far more than the heads of almost all other American non-profits), and of consistently exaggerating its need for money in direct mail fundraising. The Advertisersuggested that the SPLC preyed on gullible northern donors by creating vastly exaggerated pictures of the prevalence and danger of barely viable groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
According to the Advertiser, many non-white former employees of the SPLC complained about racial discrimination, racial slurs, or condescension within the organization.
Laird Wilcox, a scholar who studies political extremist organizations of both the right and the left, and the organizations which oppose them, offers a different critique: “The SPLC tends to view their critics and the groups they hate as essentially subhuman ... and the campaign against them acquires the character of ‘total warfare,’ where any distortion, fabrication or sleazy legal tactic is justified in terms of the struggle.”
The SPLC’s annually-released lists of hate groups, militias, and
Patriot movement groups and leaders has not always been accurate in its
characterizations. For example, Bob Glass, a Jewish owner of a gun store in
Dority (president of Humanists of Washington, executive director of the
Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair
of the Northwest Feminist Anticensorship Taskforce) criticizes the SPLC for
using guilt by association, and for reporting its ideological opponents to law
enforcement agencies, while simultaneously proclaiming its belief in
“tolerance.” (Barbara Dority, “Is the
Extremist Right Entirely Wrong?” The Humanist, Nov./Dec.
See also:Ku Klux Klan. McVeigh, Timothy, Militias,
For further information:
Morris Dees, Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat (HarperCollins, 1997)
Greg Jaffe and Dan
Morse, “Rising Fortunes: Morris Dees and the Southern
Ken Silverstein, “The Church of Morris Dees,” Harper’s Magazine, Nov. 2000.
Laird Wilcox, The Watchdogs: A Close Look at the Anti-Racist “Watchdog” Groups (2nd ed., 1999).
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