Inside The Poverty Palace
A lot of people on the right have known for a while that the Southern Poverty Law Center is an extremely effective grifting operation. You might have even called it “a marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals.” That succinct description is made not by an enemy of the SPLC, but one of its former employees, Bob Moser, writing in the New Yorker in the wake of the wealthy “poverty” organization’s firing of its founder under an ethical cloud. Excerpts:
In the days since the stunning dismissal of Morris Dees, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, on March 14th, I’ve been thinking about the jokes my S.P.L.C. colleagues and I used to tell to keep ourselves sane. 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.” The Law Center had a way of turning idealists into cynics; like most liberals, our view of the S.P.L.C. before we arrived had been shaped by its oft-cited listings of U.S. hate groups, its reputation for winning cases against the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations, and its stream of direct-mail pleas for money to keep the good work going. The mailers, in particular, painted a vivid picture of a scrappy band of intrepid attorneys and hate-group monitors, working under constant threat of death to fight hatred and injustice in the deepest heart of Dixie. When the S.P.L.C. hired me as a writer, in 2001, I figured I knew what to expect: long hours working with humble resources and a highly diverse bunch of super-dedicated colleagues. I felt self-righteous about the work before I’d even begun it.
I knew they were rich, these do-gooders, but I had no idea they were this rich. More:
The controversy erupted at a moment when the S.P.L.C. had never been more prominent, or more profitable. Donald Trump’s Presidency opened up a gusher of donations; after raising fifty million dollars in 2016, the center took in a hundred and thirty-two million dollars in 2017, much of it coming after the violent spectacle that unfolded at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that August. George and Amal Clooney’s justice foundation donated a million, as did Apple, which also added a donation button for the S.P.L.C. to its iTunes store. JPMorgan chipped in five hundred thousand dollars. The new money pushed the center’s endowment past four hundred and fifty million dollars, which is more than the total assets of the American Civil Liberties Union, and it now employs an all-time high of around three hundred and fifty staffers. But none of that has slackened its constant drive for more money. “If you’re outraged about the path President Trump is taking, I urge you to join us in the fight against the mainstreaming of hate,” a direct-mail appeal signed by Dees last year read. “Please join our fight today with a gift of $25, $35, or $100 to help us. Working together, we can push back against these bigots.”
Moser goes on to say that the organization exists mostly to raise money from, well, gullible Northern liberals. But he also points out that journalists depend on its annual list of “hate organizations” — this, without ever questioning the fact that the SPLC’s designation of even ordinary conservative organizations (like Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom) as hate groups serves to tarnish their reputations and keep the dirty money rolling in from liberals easily separated from their money.
People inside the organization aren’t surprised by any of this. As Moser writes:
For those of us who’ve worked in the Poverty Palace, putting it all into perspective isn’t easy, even to ourselves. 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.