Turmoil Inside the Southern Poverty Law Center: President and Legal Counsel Resign

A week after firing Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) co-founder Morris Dees, amid accusations of sexual misconduct and racial bias, the organization’s president, Richard Cohen, and legal director, Rhonda Brownstein, resigned on Friday.


The catalyst for the recent chaos was the resignation of one of SPLC’s top black attorneys, Meredith Horton. Upon her departure she sent out an email to co-workers which said:

There is more work to do in the legal department and across the organization to ensure that SPLC is a place where everyone is heard and respected and where the values we are committed to pursuing externally are also being practiced internally.

This prompted a group of two dozen employees to write a letter to management and to the board regarding their concern that “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”

This letter led to Dees firing. Dees had been the center’s co-founder, chief trial counsel and its biggest public face for nearly half a century.

Also, the board hired Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, to lead an inquiry into the allegations made in the letter.

Cohen put out a statement at the time which said:

As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world. When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.


The reasons for Cohen’s and Brownstein’s resignations are unclear.

According to the L.A. Times, Cohen, who joined the SPLC in 1986, sent out an email to staff at 5:03 pm on Friday to announce his resignation. He wrote, “Whatever problems exist at the SPLC happened on my watch, so I take responsibility for them.” He also asked them “to avoid jumping to conclusions before the board completes an internal review of the organization’s work culture.”

The SPLC, based in Montgomery, Alabama, is a legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation. The organization has come under fire repeatedly for their aggressive fund-raising tactics.

The mere mention of the group’s name to a conservative is likely to be met with an eye roll.

The Washington Examiner’s Becket Adams isn’t a fan of the SPLC either. He calls the organization a “scam.” He writes:

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s problems go well beyond the fact it’s a vicious, left-wing attack dog with no care whatsoever for the reputational and personal harm it causes by lumping Christians and anti-extremist activists with actual neo-Nazis.

As it turns out, the SPLC is a cynical money-making scheme, according to a former staffer’s [Bob Moser] blistering tell-all, published this week in the New Yorker. The center’s chief goal is to bilk naive and wealthy donors who believe it’s an earnest effort to combat bigotry.

Their business model centers entirely around keeping donors in a state of constant, wallet-opening panic. The SPLC, which enjoys a sterling reputation in the press as a serious and knowledgeable authority on bigotry and extremism in the U.S., does this to great effect with sleek gimmicks such as its infamous “hate maps” and “hate lists,” all of which are shared widely by an extremely eager, fawning news media.


Moser began his story with the following anecdote:

Walking to lunch past the center’s Maya Lin–designed memorial to civil-rights martyrs, we’d cast a glance at the inscription from Martin Luther King, Jr., etched into the black marble—“Until justice rolls down like waters”—and intone, in our deepest voices, “Until justice rolls down like dollars.”

Here are some of the most illuminating comments from Bob Moser’s story.

Outside of work, we spent a lot of time drinking and dishing in Montgomery bars and restaurants about … the hyperbolic fund-raising appeals, and the fact that, though the center claimed to be effective in fighting extremism, ‘hate’ always continued to be on the rise, more dangerous than ever, with each year’s report on hate groups. ‘The S.P.L.C.—making hate pay,’ we’d say.”

[I]t was hard, for many of us, not to feel like we’d become pawns in what was, in many respects, a highly profitable scam.

[The center’s chief founder] Morris Dees, discovered early on that he could rake in boatloads of cash by convincing “gullible Northern liberals” that his group is doing the hard work of fighting “hate.”

But the center’s supposed mission of combating bigotry doesn’t actually matter to its top brass. It’s just a business choice and one that has been extremely lucrative throughout the years.

The group’s failure to live up to the ideals it supposedly champions is never more apparent than in its alleged treatment of female and minority staffers. To wit, female employees are routinely subjected to sexual harassment and minorities rarely make it out of administrative and support roles.

[T]he center continues to take in far more than it spends. And it still tends to emphasize splashy cases that are sure to draw national attention. Their central strategy involves taking on cases guaranteed to make headlines and inflame the far right while demonstrating to potential donors that the center has not only all the right enemies but also the grit and know-how to take them down.

There is an inescapable sense of “guilt” that comes with thinking 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.


None of Moser’s revelations are difficult to believe. Then again, you won’t find too many conservatives who are concerned about the organization’s current upheaval.

Between Moser’s expose, Dees departure amid sexual misconduct allegations, and the departures of Cohen and Brownstein, I imagine their fundraising ability will take a hit. Given how influential and highly politicized the SPLC has become, that’s not a bad thing.


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