I’ve always thought the Southern Poverty Law Center was one of the good guys, fighting against race hatred and taking on groups like the KKK. And then, suddenly, Morris Dees, one of the founders and leaders of the organization, was booted out. What was going, I wondered. The SPLC’s brief announcements didn’t explain anything. Now we know.
We were working with a group of dedicated and talented people, fighting all kinds of good fights, making life miserable for the bad guys. And yet, all the time, dark shadows hung over everything: the racial and gender disparities, the whispers about sexual harassment, the abuses that stemmed from the top-down management, and the guilt you couldn’t help feeling about the legions of donors who believed that their money was being used, faithfully and well, to do the Lord’s work in the heart of Dixie. We were part of the con, and we knew it.
Wait, are you saying I was conned? By the SPLC? Crap.
the Los Angeles Times and the Alabama Political Reporter reported that Dees’s ouster had come amid a staff revolt over the mistreatment of nonwhite and female staffers, which was sparked by the resignation of the senior attorney Meredith Horton, the highest-ranking African-American woman at the center. A number of staffers subsequently signed onto two letters of protest to the center’s leadership, alleging that multiple reports of sexual harassment by Dees through the years had been ignored or covered up, and sometimes resulted in retaliation against the women making the claims. (Dees denied the allegations, telling a reporter, “I don’t know who you’re talking to or talking about, but that is not right.”)
The staffers wrote that Dees’s firing was welcome but insufficient: their larger concern, they emphasized, was a widespread pattern of racial and gender discrimination by the center’s current leadership, stretching back many years. (The S.P.L.C. has since appointed Tina Tchen, a former chief of staff for Michelle Obama, to conduct a review of its workplace environment.) If Cohen and other senior leaders thought that they could shunt the blame, the riled-up staffers seem determined to prove them wrong. One of my former female colleagues told me that she didn’t want to go into details of her harassment for this story, because she believes the focus should be on the S.P.L.C.’s current leadership. “I just gotta hope your piece helps keep the momentum for change going,” she said. Stephen Bright, a Yale professor and longtime S.P.L.C. critic, told me, “These chickens took a very long flight before they came home to roost.” The question, for current and former staffers alike, is how many chickens will come to justice before this long-overdue reckoning is complete.
They talked the talk, but they didn’t walk the walk. What they were doing was good and necessary, but their aims were not reflected at all in their internal organization. This is a familiar bad look, where teams of old white men run the show and tell the world how much they value diversity. It’s fine to promote diversity, but you also have to be able to step to the side and make room for other voices. I guess Morris Dees wasn’t able to do that.