What is Southern Poverty Law Center?

Neil Snarr - Contributing columnist

“The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation” according to Wikipedia “… it is known for its legal cases against white supremacist groups, for its classification of hate groups and other extremist organizations, and for promoting tolerance education programs.”

The SPLC has provided information to the FBI and other government law enforcement agencies. In the excellent book “Bring the War Home”, Kathleen Belew says that, “Indeed, efforts undertaken by outside groups – namely, the lawsuits filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center – had done far more to slow the white power movement than any criminal trial or state action.”

She goes on to site specific cases – the SPLC lawsuit on behalf of the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association in Texas and, “In February 1987, the SPLC won a $7 million lawsuit against the United Klan’s of America, an old-guard group connected only loosely to the paramilitary white power movement.” This grew out of the lynching of a 19-year-old Black teenager in Mobile, Alabama.

To these two examples can be added hundreds more over the years that the SPLC has existed, included the following. In 1988 the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) fatally assaulted Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian who came to the US to attend college. Two years later the SPLC won a civil case on behalf of Seraw’s family against WAR for $12.5 which put WAR out of business.

“The SPLC won a $37.8 million verdict on behalf of Macedonia Baptist Church, a 100-year-old black church in Manning, SC, against two Ku Klux Klan chapters and five Klansmen in July 1998.The money was awarded stemming from arson convictions; these Klan units burned down the historic black church in 1995.”

In September 2000, the SPLC won a $6.3 million judgment against the Aryan Nations via an Idaho jury which awarded punitive and compensatory damages to a woman and her son who were attacked by Aryan Nations guards.

“The lawsuit stemmed from the July 1998 attack when security guards at the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake in norther Idaho, shot at Victoria Keenan and her son. Bullets struck their car several times, causing the car to crash. An Aryan Nations member held the Keenans at gunpoint. As a result of the judgment, Richard Butler turned over the 20-acre compound to the Keenans, who sold the property to a philanthropist. He donated the land to North Idaho College, which designated the area as a ‘peace park’.”

In April of 2017, “the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Tanya Gersh, accusing Andrew Anglin, publisher of the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, of instigating an anti-Semitic harassment campaign against Gersh, a Whitefish, Montana, real estate agent. In July 2019 a judge issued a $14 million dollar default judgment against Anglin, who is in hiding and has refused to appear in court.”

Aside from these many, many successes the SPLC has been faced with internal conflicts and has been taken to court by many groups claiming to be falsely accused.

Still the group continues to seek justice and, as mentioned above, publishes its annual “Year in Hate and Extremism” report.

This past March, this report was published and found that 733 hate groups were operating across the U.S. in 2021. This was down from a historic high of 1,020 in 2018 and has fallen for three years in a row.

The 2018 high number is attributed primarily to having our first Black president, but have fallen for the third year in a row to 733 in 2021. In a similar question to the “hate group” issue, the SPLC pursued the issue of “far-right antigovernment extremist groups” and found a similar decline, from 566 in 2020 to 488 in 2021.

Good news, no? According to the Summer 2022 SPLC Report, a clear no. “… rather than demonstrating a decline in the power of the radical right, the numbers suggest that the extremist ideas that mobilize them now operate more openly in the political mainstream.”

This discussion concludes with thoughts about “Democracy at a crossroad.”

Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.


Neil Snarr

Contributing columnist