What Went Wrong with the Southern Poverty Law Center?

Heritage Explains

What Went Wrong with the Southern Poverty Law Center?

The Southern Poverty Law Center has turned itself into a left-wing smear factory. How did it get that way and what’s the goal? We sat down with Daily Signal Managing Editor Tyler O’Neil to find out.

John Popp: From The Heritage Foundation, this is Heritage Explains.

Mark Guiney: It is always hard when someone betrays your trust. Anybody who has ever had to do a group project at school can tell you that it hurts twice when your science fair project partner did not, in fact, do their half of the report. The first time it hurts is when you wind up getting a D-minus when you personally did a B-plus job. The second time is when you lose confidence in yourself because you, for some reason, agreed to the ridiculous idea of doing a group project in the first place.

But in 2023, Americans are no strangers to losing trust in the institutions that surround them. A Gallup poll conducted last year measured the number of Americans who responded to having a great deal or quite a lot of trust in the institutions around them. Between 2021 and 2022, across the board, between those calendar years, people trusted less. The military dropped from 69% to 64%. The police from 44% to 38%. Organized religion, from 37% to 31%. Newspapers dropped from an already abysmal 21% to 15%. The presidency took a staggering 15-point hit, dropping from 38% in 2021 to 23% in 2022.

There was a lot to get into with this trend, and it's one that Conservatives have much to learn from, but we want to focus on the story of a particular institution that both suffers from and, more importantly, contributes to this fall from grace. That would be the Southern Poverty Law Center. For that, I talked to the man who literally wrote the book on the organization, Daily Signal managing editor, Tyler O'Neil, the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Tyler O'Neil, who are you? What do you do here at The Heritage Foundation?

Tyler O'Neil: Hey, yeah. I am the managing editor of The Daily Signal. I oversee the day-to-day operations of The Daily Signal and write and edit a lot of content. I love to follow things, especially on a certain organization called the Southern Poverty Law Center. I wrote a book, Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Guiney: Excellent. And you come to us through many news organizations. You've been... every job you can have within news. But before that, you graduated from Hillsdale-

O'Neil: Yes, sir.

Guiney: ... which is one of our favorite institutions here at The Heritage Foundation, with a degree in history.

O'Neil: Yeah.

Guiney: How did you get from history to journalism?

O'Neil: Journalism is the rough draft of history. The way I see it, we tend to think of history as set in stone, as one thing, but the actual past is full of so many moments. I think CS Lewis has a brilliant essay where he talks about the impossibility of capturing everything in history. So what you do when you capture history, you have the people who are there on the ground who write their first impressions, and then you have others who remember afterward and write what happened then. And then you have the third party who reads both of them and summarizes it. So when we read a history textbook, we're often reading secondary, tertiary, quaternary sources as opposed to the primary source of the person who was there at the time. Journalism is being either that primary or that secondary source.

Guiney: So you're in luck today. We're going to talk about some history and some journalism, and historically we're going to talk about the Southern Poverty Law Center, or the SPLC. You literally wrote the book on the subject, which is a little bit surprising because, when I think about the SPLC, I remember in history class that being in the same chapter with Martin Luther King Jr. and Selma. It became famous for successfully litigating for the poor and the marginalized against the Ku Klux Klan. But you, Tyler O'Neil, you say that the history and the news surrounding the SPLC is not quite so rosy and we are going to talk-

O'Neil: Yes.

Guiney: You would agree with that statement?

O'Neil: Yes, very much so.

Guiney: For those who might not be familiar, what is the Southern Poverty Law Center?

O'Neil: Yeah. The Southern Poverty Law Center began as a public-interest law firm in the South representing, as the name suggests, poor people who couldn't represent themselves in court. And it was the brainchild of this man, Morris Dees, who was always an inveterate fundraiser. Like, you read his autobiography and a bunch of stories about him when he was growing up, in high school he started selling things on the side. In college, he was selling cakes. He started developing these relationships, building donations, and he eventually got the idea to start this public-interest law firm. And it was great because he had this passion for justice and he would represent these people who didn't have any recourse.

One of the SPLC's big wins early on were these three Black men, the Tarboro Three, who were accused of raping a white woman. And there was no evidence whatsoever that they had done this, but they were still convicted in court of raping her and sentenced to death. And so Morris Dees and the SPLC comes along and they represent the men. They get the case reopened, they examine the evidence, and they get these three men, who are falsely accused of raping this woman, off of death row. It's this tremendous victory for justice. This is exactly the kind of thing that an organization like the SPLC should exist to do. The real question is why isn't that their main focus today?

And there are two big answers to that question. I don't want to talk all day, but the main thing was Morris Dees, despite his passion for justice, he also had an interesting personal beef. His uncle was a member of the KKK and he was growing up when the KKK was still pretty big and impactful, in the 1950s. And he recalls having these situations where he comes very close to violence with his uncle as a member of the KKK.

And so in the 1980s, Morris Dees starts to realize that he has, with the SPLC, the ability to go after the Klan. And in some cases there were good cases that the SPLC took up. There was this widow who lost her son in a lynching and the SPLC represented her against the Klan. Now, the interesting thing is the Klan members had already been convicted of the murder. The SPLC was representing her to get restitution, and so eventually they sued the KKK and the KKK group didn't put up much of a fight. They didn't have a lot of money, they didn't have a lot of lawyers, so they lost. And Morris Dees gets this million-dollar judgment against them.

The interesting thing about this case is Morris Dees gets a million-dollar settlement. I think it was like $6 million that this group had to give. They don't have it. What happens is this settlement goes to the bereaved widow. Now, the organization barely has a penny to its name. They had a piece of property that they were required to sell and give all the money to the widow. That was about 50 grand. The widow gets 50 grand and the SPLC gets this multimillion-dollar judgment so they can go to their donors and say, "Hey, look, we got a million dollars from the Klan. Give us money." The SPLC rakes in millions of dollars, but that 50 grand that the widow got, she pays it back to the SPLC, which had given her a loan for a house.

This woman, who's at the center of the case, who they got the multimillion-dollar judgment for, she gets 50 grand. She gives it to the SPLC. She essentially doesn't make anything. The SPLC goes to its donors and rakes in millions of dollars, and yet the story gets worse because she wants to make a movie about the case. But Morris Dees also wants to make a movie about the case. So Morris Dees gets the movie contract and she gets shunted to the side. So this woman, who actually lost her son in this case, has essentially come out without any more money after the SPLC represented her, and she hasn't been able to get the movie deal and tell her story the way that she wanted to.

Morris Dees got to tell the story instead. So in 1985, the entire legal team of the SPLC quits en masse, because they said, "Look, we signed up to represent poor people in the South. We did not sign up to go up against the KKK," which these lawyers said was like shooting fish in a barrel in the 1980s. And they said, "This was all a fundraising scheme for Morris Dees."

Guiney: So there was a shift from the original stated mission of the SPLC?

O'Neil: Yes. The original stated mission of the SPLC, representing poor people in the South, this was broad. And they even represented white people who had experienced reverse discrimination, early in their history. But by the mid 1980s, Dees' focus was all on the Klan and the legal team said, "This isn't what we signed up for." And they all quit because they said, "Look, we are not going to be a part of this fundraising strategy that you have, of just going after the Klan all the time. We want to actually help people."

Guiney: Because the Klan was essentially defunct in the 1980s?

O'Neil: Yes. Yeah. So a lot of times the SPLC would sue the Klan, and the Klan didn't have much money to its name, didn't have much popularity. Nobody wanted to represent them in court, so the lawyers said it was like shooting fish in a barrel to defeat the Klan. I don't want to go too far on that because I do think it was good for society, in a lot of ways, that many Klan groups were sued into bankruptcy. I think what the SPLC was doing there was good for society, but it was also the kind of thing that this is a different organization from when it was founded. And I think we need to acknowledge that and we need to notice that there were staff at the SPLC who said, even then, that Morris Dees was changing the nature of this organization, from representing poor people to a fundraising juggernaut that was focused on combating hate.

And at that time it was real hate. But he eventually ran out of Grand Dragons to conquer and started going more and more mainstream with the targets of the hate that Dees and his organization were exposing. And eventually it started getting to mainstream conservative groups, Christian groups like Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, Center for Immigration Studies. So we have really three organizations in one. There's the initial, noble SPLC; there's the "We're going after the Klan" SPLC, which I see as a transition from the first to the third; and then there's the third, the version of the SPLC we have right now.

Guiney: And about when did that transition start to happen?

O'Neil: Yeah, it's interesting to pinpoint times because, even in the 1990s, the SPLC was still focused on these groups that were more racist. So you had these skinheads. This is the slow movement from KKK to FRC. They were going through skinheads. They were going through a few other organizations. But then, by the early 2000s, we start to see organizations pop up on the hate map that arguably don't belong there.

Guiney: Yeah. So can you talk about, this was an evolution of the SPLC is the hate map, which is now very common. It's on the front of your book. Can you talk about what the hate map is?

O'Neil: Yes. The hate map grew out of SPLC's intelligence project. The intelligence project was originally Klan Watch. It was their premier document where they would note all the things that were happening with the Klan and they would take these reports about the Klan, put it out as a magazine called Klan Watch. Then it became the Intelligence Project. And then now the Intelligence Project is most famous for putting out the hate map. And the hate map, what it does is it puts organizations on a map of the US with chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.
It's clearly meant to be, I'd call it an organ of defamation, where they're saying, "Look, the SPLC cut its teeth, proved itself in destroying the Klan. Now we're saying these groups are like the Klan. They deserve to be put on this hate map with the Klan." The hate map is scary. It's red and black, and it's "These are people you should hate." That's the interesting thing about the hate map.

Guiney: And there is some scary stuff on there when you start to scroll through. What kind of groups do you find on the hate map?

O'Neil: Yeah, yeah. So you find the Grand Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. You find Neo-Nazis, you find the American Nazi Party. And then, of course, you keep scrolling and you see, "Oh, wait, there's Moms for Liberty, there's the Family Research Council, there's Alliance Defending Freedom." And now recently they've made it so that they've put even Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum is now on there. It's gotten really, really crazy how broad it is.

Guiney: I was very interested to see on there that they break up on the hate map various groups. So they're talking about groups that are racist or white nationalists in origin. I can't remember some of the categories that are on there, but one of them that they recently listed, I suppose, is anti-government.

O'Neil: Yes.

Guiney: You can wind up on the hate map as an anti-government group, which seems odd for a civil liberties organization.

O'Neil: Yes.

Guiney: So the overarching takeaway here is that the SPLC seems to be miscategorizing non-hateful groups in order to besmirch their name. And there are some recent examples that we could look at. One that you've already mentioned is the fact that, over the last few months, the SPLC has put Moms for Liberty on their hate map. Moms for Liberty is part of the parental rights movement that's currently sweeping the nation. Can you talk about how they wound up on the hate map, why you think the SPLC has decided to do this and what the response has been?

O'Neil: Yeah. So Moms for Liberty was started, and the parental rights movement in general, was mostly started to oppose COVID restrictions. This was at the height of the pandemic when first you had, in March 2020, when 14 days to slow the spread. And then it turned into two years to slow the spread. And moms and dads were saying, "Look, I can't afford to keep schooling my children at home through Zoom. We need to reopen the schools and I don't want to send my six-year-old to school wearing a mask all day."

And so this very natural anger about the way that schools were dealing with COVID really started the movement. And then, as parents saw what their kids were being taught in school, it became a movement about opposing Critical Race Theory, about opposing these radical sexual lessons in school, about standing up for parental rights and their ability to have a say about what kids are learning in the classroom.
So Moms for Liberty is a very mainstream organization. It grew up in chapters across the country, but the SPLC has long been on the other side of those cultural issues. So when it comes to CRT, when it comes to transgender ideology, the SPLC has a program, now it's called Learning for Justice. It was called Teaching Tolerance, where they pushed transgender ideology on children even as young as kindergarten. And they also advocated for what we would recognize as Critical Race Theory. So it made sense that they were going to respond to Moms for Liberty and the parental rights movement, but I did not expect... What they did was they strained to connect these parental rights groups to a movement in the 1950s that grew up after Brown v. the Board of Education, where parents were like, "We don't support segregation. We're going to take our kids out of the schools."

And this was a limited-time movement, partially because a lot of what we saw with forced busing was not popular. And so segregation was gotten rid of. Thank God, it was a tremendous evil. And then integration, there were different approaches that happened. So anyway, what happened were a lot of these parents who really supported segregation were called the Uptown Klans because it was then about racism and about not having their lily-white children spoiled by exposure to Black people. Which, obviously, I think everyone today would condemn.
And the parental rights movement, by the way, includes parents of all races. This isn't about a racial battle in any way. This is an ideological struggle. But the SPLC decided, "Oh, well, here's convenient. Let's say that Moms for Liberty is like today's Uptown Klans, that they're trying to bring white supremacy back into the classroom, and that's what we're going to say so that we can justify putting them on the hate map with chapters of the Klan."

Guiney: Do you think that this move by the SPLC has degraded their credibility at all, or does everybody seem to be picking up their lead and running with it?

O'Neil: That's an open question. I thought their credibility had taken an irreparable hit in 2019 when the SPLC fired Morris Dees, he's the co-founder we were talking about earlier, in a racial discrimination and sexual harassment scandal that they still haven't provided real answers to. So there were these claims then, and they had an internal review led by Tina Tchen, who was Michelle Obama's chief of staff, and Tina Tchen pushed it under the rug. So nobody knows to this day how that scandal was really dealt with at the SPLC, whether it was dealt with at all.

But amid that scandal, a former employee came forward and said he was part of the con, that the hate accusations are a highly profitable scam meant to bilk donors. And you can see that when you look at the hate map. I've been focusing on the Klan, the Neo-Nazis, and then this other group, the mainstream Conservatives who the SPLC is slandering, but then there's a third group that barely exists at all. These are organizations that may not even exist. And then they also have, one of my favorite examples is the Wild Men's Surplus and Herb Shop, where it was this one guy who had this herb shop and he was a Confederate fan or whatever. So he had a Confederate flag in his shop and the SPLC said, "That's hate."

Guiney: And he got a dot all to himself on the hate map.

O'Neil: He did, yes.

Guiney: And hasn't there been cases of the SPLC actually on the hate map, putting dots for individual chapters of organizations, rather than organizations as a whole, to inflate the scary appearance of the hate map? Is that correct?

O'Neil: Yes. Yeah. So they would say that it's not inflating it, but if you look at when they send out their newsletters and their numbers and they're saying, "Hate is increasing in America. We found 1,200 hate groups," yeah, you look at the actual number and, like you said, a lot of the number there are different chapters of one organization. So that's how they can prop up their numbers and make it seem like hate is a lot bigger of a thing.

Guiney: So what would've been formally counted as one organization now, down the line, is counted as several.

O'Neil: Moms for Liberty has like 130 on there, I think. I did an analysis of the whole map and found that it's about inflated by three times at least. And that's just based on these duplicate, these chapter listings, and based on organizations I personally know are not hateful.

Guiney: So the SPLC doing all this stuff, publishing the hate map, identifying organizations that are not hateful as hateful. Why would it matter? Why would that matter to the average American?

O'Neil: That's a great question. There are a lot of answers to it. One of them is, in 2012, a man took a gun and a bag of Chick-fil-A sandwiches and went to the Family Research Council and decided he would try to shoot every single person in that building and smear a Chick-fil-A sandwich in their faces. This was when Chick-fil-A, the Chick-fil hate thing where the left was saying that Chick-fil-A was funding hate groups. And so thankfully he was stopped but when the FBI was questioning him, he said, "Look, I targeted them because Southern Poverty Law Center lists anti-gay groups and I thought I would go and kill everybody at one of these groups on the hate map."

Now, the SPLC condemned the shooting, of course, but they've kept FRC on there ever since. And it's interesting, there's another domestic terrorist situation where one of the SPLC's own employees, a lawyer, was charged with domestic terrorism because he was engaged in a violent riot against police in Atlanta where they were throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks and incendiary devices at police and at construction equipment. So the SPLC has suggested that he wasn't involved in any violence. We'll have to see as the court case progresses. I think that's a very eye-opening situation.

You ask why we should care. The Biden administration seems to care a great deal. Earlier this year, in January, the Richmond office of the FBI published a document where they were encouraging FBI agents to infiltrate Catholic churches because they were connected to a radical traditional Catholic hate group. And for their information on this, they used none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Nevermind that the SPLC that previous attorneys general, namely Jeff Sessions, had directed the FBI never to use the SPLC in its work.

Instead, what we've seen under Merrick Garland, is that the FBI did use it specifically here, and President Biden has met with FBI staff, or SPLC staff. Of course, he meets with FBI staff. President Biden has met with SPLC staff six times personally, and the SPLC has met at the White House, I believe it's 11 times in the past two years. And I think the SPLC is a useful tool for those on the left to demonize Conservatives, particularly with the Biden administration when they go after parents and they worked with the National School Board's Association to draft that letter comparing parents to domestic terrorists and encouraging the government to use the Patriot Act to go after them.

I think the SPLC is a useful tool for the federal government. If the Biden administration wants to do that sort of thing in the future, they can use the hate map and say, "Hey, look, these so-called parental rights groups, they're really an anti-student inclusion movement and they're hateful. They deserve government surveillance and whatever we can throw at them."

Guiney: So, in response to this, there are some lawsuits brewing against the SPLC. Can you talk about what's going on there?

O'Neil: Yes. There have been many lawsuits, defamation lawsuits, against the SPLC as the Conservatives, who have found their names drug through the mud by this supposed public-interest group, have tried to restore their good names in court. And most of the time courts dismiss these lawsuits because they're not specifically written. Defamation law is complicated. You have to not only prove that somebody defamed you, but that they had good reason to believe that their statement was false. So there was one case, the Dustin Inman Society, where the SPLC had previously said that the founder of the Dustin Inman Society, D.A. King, had an organization that was not a hate group.

And they specifically said, they told the Associated Press, "We looked at this guy, we think he's a little wacky, but his organization's not a hate group." That was in 2011. Fast-forward to 2018, suddenly they decide, out of the blue, that they're going to put his organization on the hate map and call him a hate group. They do that at the same time as they're registering a lobbyist to oppose a bill that his organization supported. So when D.A. King and the Dustin Inman Society sued the SPLC for defamation, rather than having their case dismissed, the judge said that it should go to discovery because he can pretty much definitively plead, even if he can't prove it at the moment, that the SPLC had good reason to doubt that he was a hate group.

Now, he just got a major attorney to join his case. This guy represented Nick Sandmann. His name is Todd McMurtry. So Nick Sandmann, you remember the MAGA hat Covington Catholic High School boy who was defamed by the media. He sued CNN, he sued the Washington Post, he sued Sinclair stations. He sued a lot of places. Todd McMurtry represented him and got at least three major settlements from these companies before the case could go to trial. So he didn't win every case, but McMurtry has proven himself, and it's a huge shot in the arm for the Dustin Inman Society that McMurtry has joined this lawsuit. And I expect big bombshells out of this because I don't think the SPLC is going to settle. I think we're going to go to trial and I think we're going to see things that will be very revealing to those who want to use the SPLC as a weapon to silence their opponents.

Guiney: Coming out of that, at The Heritage Foundation, we're solutions-oriented people. As you're looking at the SPLC, what should patriotic Americans do, think about the SPLC and groups like it?

O'Neil: Yeah. Obviously, the number one thing I'd say is buy my book. It's called Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Guiney: We'll have a link in the show notes.

O'Neil: But the main thing is just to let people know this organization is not reliable, so if anybody is mentioning it, if you see... And there are big companies, we didn't get into this very much, but that have relied on the SPLC. Amazon used the SPLC to exclude groups from its Amazon SMILE charity donation platform. But I think there are a lot of organizations. I think it's Airbnb, Eventbrite, some of these groups, if you are a user of these organizations and you can send them a note and say, "Look, this SPLC is not reliable. Don't cut off groups that it calls hate groups just because they're called hate groups."

If we can pressure companies, pressure big tech, pressure the government, and of course, write to your senator. I live in Virginia, and when the story about the Richmond FBI using the SPLC to go after Catholics, when that came out, I went to every Virginia elected official with a media request, and most of them didn't get back to me. But one of the things that shocked me was when Tim Kane, who's up for reelection in 2024, got my request, he decided to respond and he didn't condemn the FBI for citing the SPLC. He said, "There's this report that says extremists are trying to infiltrate Catholic churches. I find that very disturbing."

So he essentially endorsed the SPLC's claims, the FBI's claims, here. I think it's very important that we try to get members of Congress on record about this organization, and that Americans know this and think about when they're deciding whom to vote for, weigh that into their considerations. Because this organization is a left-wing smear factory. One of its major goals is to go after and silence its political opponents. Many of those people are really good people who are just trying to stand up for their rights in a politically-charged environment. And I think it's incumbent upon us to recognize when an elected official is using a group like this to silence the American people, that is a huge red flag, and we should be paying attention.

Guiney: Thanks to Tyler O'Neil, journalist and historian, and thank you to all of you for listening to Heritage Explains. Check out our show notes for more work by Tyler O'Neil at The Daily Signal, and a link to his book, Making Hate Pay. You can also find him on Twitter @Tyler2ONeil. If you have any thoughts or feedback to share with us, send it our way at [email protected]. As always, thanks for hanging out with us this week. We'll have a great show for you next Wednesday. Be sure not to miss it. We'll see you then.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It's written and produced by Mark Guiney, Lauren Evans, and John Popp.

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