Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, is committed to advocacy for civil rights and racial equality. Formally incorporated in 1971 by Alabama lawyers Morris Dees and Joe Levin, the Southern Poverty Law Center was founded as a small law firm dedicated to handling anti-discrimination cases in the United States. Supported by contributions from committed activists all over the country, the center is known for its tolerance programs, its legal victories against discrimination and white supremacist groups, and its investigations of alleged hate groups. With politician and civil rights leader Julian Bond as its first president, two of SPLC’s early lawsuits resulted in the desegregation of the local YMCA’s athletic offerings and the racial integration of the Alabama State Troopers. Many of SPLC’s cases changed the social landscape of the United States, set legal precedents, and resulted in landmark Supreme Court rulings.
From the 1970s through the 1980s, SPLC legal cases challenged conditions in prisons and mental health facilities, worked to end involuntary sterilization of women on welfare, and fought for equal benefits for women in the armed forces. In 1979, when the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) disrupted a civil rights gathering in Decatur, Alabama, SPLC filed a civil suit. Shortly thereafter it initiated the Klanwatch project (later renamed the Intelligence Project) to monitor organized hate activity, including antigovernment militia movements and political extremist groups. SPLC further sued white supremacist leaders—holding them responsible for the violence of their followers—on behalf of the victims, in effect weakening the financial structure of groups such as the KKK and Aryan Nations. The center’s quarterly Intelligence Report, read by more than 60,000 law enforcement officials, provides comprehensive updates and online hate crime training courses to law enforcement, the media, and the public.
In 1991, to combat the causes of hate and expand its outreach efforts, SPLC launched the Teaching Tolerance project as an educational program to help K-12 teachers foster respect and understanding in the classroom. Through a wide variety of classroom activities, printed materials, and multimedia kits, the Teaching Tolerance program promotes respect for differences and an appreciation of unity and diversity in schools and communities. According to SPLC, the award-winning free publication Teaching Tolerance magazine is mailed twice and published online three times a year to more than 600,000 educators in more than 70 countries. In 2001 the Web site Tolerance.org was created to further support antibias activism and dismantle bigotry through a collection of online guides and resources. The center also sponsored the creation of a civil rights memorial in downtown Montgomery. The black granite memorial, designed by architect Maya Lin, is a contemplative place visited by people from around the world to honor those killed during the struggle for civil rights and equality.
SPLC’s activities have long generated both widespread acclaim and ongoing political controversy. The organization has been accused of financial mismanagement, misleading fund-raising methods, and institutionalized racism. In addition, it has been charged with exaggerating the threat of racism for purposes of fund-raising, wrongfully applying the term hate group to legitimate organizations, and promoting a left-wing “politically correct” agenda under the guise of civil rights.