The SPLC's Scandalous History on Race

The 2018 SPLC hate map.

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights watchdog that has devolved into a far-left smear factory, fired its co-founder, Morris Dees, and announced a workplace culture investigation. This drastic action highlighted the organization’s scandalous history on race. Despite its fervent battle for civil rights, the SPLC has long been criticized for not elevating black employees into leadership, and complaints about this issue loomed large in the Dees firing.


Glen Allen, a Baltimore lawyer who sued the SPLC last year for defaming him and destroying his career, predicted that the workplace investigation “will find what many of us have long believed, that the SPLC is the Harvey Weinstein of the nonprofits.”

Indeed, Josh Moon, a reporter and columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter, revealed internal emails suggesting that sexual assault and racial discrimination were primary factors in the firing of Morris Dees.

“I have been sent a number of internal SPLC emails that address the ongoing situation and specifically discuss Dees,” Moon tweeted. “Looks like a combination of complaints regarding sexual harassment and racial biases in promotion and hierarchy led to this.”

Indeed, complaints about the SPLC not promoting black employees into key leadership positions have plagued the organization for decades.

In February 1994, Dan Morse ran a series of articles in the Montgomery Advertiser exposing the SPLC’s leadership problems.

“Outside the Southern Poverty Law Center, a stunning civil rights memorial honors those who died to give blacks more opportunities. Inside, no blacks have held top management positions in the center’s 23-year history, and some former employees say blacks are treated like second-class citizens,” Morse wrote.


“I would definitely say there was not a single black employee with whom I spoke who was happy to be working there,” Christine Lee, a black graduate of Harvard Law School who interned at the SPLC in 1989, told the Advertiser.

According to the report, only one black man has ever been among the top five wage-earners, and he was only one of two black staff attorneys in the SPLC’s history. Both said they left unhappy.

Morse contacted 13 black former SPLC staffers, and 12 said they either experienced or observed racial problems in the organization. Three recalled hearing racial slurs, three compared the SPLC to a plantation, and two said they had been treated better at predominantly white corporate law firms. Only three said the SPLC did not treat them worse than any other workplace.

According to internal memorandums, staffers accused Morris Dees of being a racist and making black employees feel “threatened.”

“I think there’s a real question as to the sincerity and legitimacy of the organization because of the noticeable absence of blacks there,” Donald Jackson, a black graduate of the University of Virginia Law School who interned at the SPLC in 1987, told the Advertiser. “You know, it’s sort of like the pot calling the kettle black.”

When asked about these criticisms, Morris Dees said, “There ain’t no plantation mentality. If that was the case, I don’t know what blacks would be doing in the positions they are…”

While two of the six members of the board of directors are black, a black board member was overruled when she offered the Advertiser access to the board meeting minutes. In 1994, only one of the department heads was black, and she oversaw the mail operations.


The SPLC gained its reputation as a civil rights organization by bringing the Ku Klux Klan to court. Its advocacy has made life better for black people in America.

Donald Jackson, the former intern, insisted that while the organization has “done some very positive and favorable and exciting things, … you can’t go out and preach racial sensitivity and racial tolerance and all these types of things without practicing all these types of things you are preaching about.”

The racial problems did not end in 1994. Former employees have complained about racial disparities in leadership on the confidential employer review site GlassDoor.

January 2017, a former employee who spent more than a year at the SPLC noted that while “all SPLC practice areas … have a disproportionate effect on black and brown people … such a small percentage of black and brown people are employed on the Legal team at SPLC (two Black lawyers and three Black Advocates within a staff of about 100 across five states).”

“Toxic work environments lead to low retention rates,” the reviewer added. “High turnover rates are a direct reflection of poor management and lack of opportunity/upward mobility.” The review also reported on “the mismanagement and mistreatment of employees.”

This former employee told the Board of Directors, “Time to clean house. Senior leadership has caused and allowed the toxic environment that permeates the entire organization to go on for long enough.” Twenty-four Glassdoor users found this review “helpful.”


Another review from September 2017 gave the SPLC one out of five stars, claiming the organization’s main concern is “raising more money, and maintaining the top rated platinum standard brand. Very elitist and a bit out of touch.”

This reviewer also noted “a profound lack of diversity in higher level roles,” even though “there are well qualified people of color who’ve dedicated up to and over 12 years to [the] mission of the organization.”

Even today, only one of the eight current directors is black. The other leader, Associate Legal Director Meredith Horton, left the organization shortly before Dees’s firing, complaining about sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

This scandalous racial history seems particularly telling for an organization that routinely smears conservative and Christian organizations as “hate groups” and attacks the Trump administration for alleged anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBT activity, and racism.

According to surveys, black Americans are more likely to hold evangelical Christian beliefs than white Americans, so having more blacks in leadership might help the SPLC understand that traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality are not “anti-LGBT hate.”


This week, the SPLC announced that Tina Tchen, a former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, would carry out a review of the company’s workplace culture. It is important for her review to be thorough and honest. While it is unlikely the SPLC will give up its anti-conservative crusade, reform might help this far-Left smear factory become a little more objective.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.


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