Wypijewski Replies on the Southern Poverty Law Center

By JoAnn Wypijewski, The Nation (February 8, 2001)

(complete article)

...1955 marked the second time Montgomery's blacks boycotted public conveyances over segregation. The first was in 1900, when transit segregation was put into law. For that whole summer blacks refused to ride the trolleys. The white power structure was forced to make a minor compromise but would not cave for more than a half-century; almost another half-century on, the long walk to transit freedom in Montgomery continues.

Meanwhile, here's J. Richard Cohen congratulating himself and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which in thirty years of existence has addressed the transportation crisis twice and the transit racism in its own hometown not at all...

Perhaps simple courtesy is also "beside the point" for the center's puffed-up crusaders, seeing as how the coalition's work doesn't fall within their "historic mission"--i.e., bringing headline-grabbing lawsuits. But because even the Federal Transit Administration's Office of Civil Rights advises activists that the fight for transit justice in America is unlikely ever to be won in court, that historic mission turns out here to be a self-serving cloak for indifference. Even at the level of rhetoric, Cohen and his colleagues, who regularly expound on civil rights issues in Op-Ed pieces or letters to the editor in the Montgomery Advertiser, have not bestirred themselves on the bus crisis.

What is the Southern Poverty Law Center doing instead? Mostly making money. I would never have suggested that it "devote[s] all [its] resources to the fight against white supremacist organizations," because the center doesn't devote all of its resources to any kind of fight. In 1999 it spent $2.4 million on litigation and $5.7 million on fundraising, meanwhile taking in more than $44 million--$27 million from fundraising, the rest from investments. A few years ago the American Institute of Philanthropy gave the SPLC an F for "excessive" reserves. On the subject of "hate groups," though, Cohen is almost comically disingenuous. No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of such groups than the center's millionaire huckster Morris Dees, who in 1999 began a begging letter, "Dear Friend, The danger presented by the Klan is greater now than at any time in the past ten years."

Hate sells; poor people don't, which is why readers who go to the center's website will find only a handful of cases on such unlucrative causes as fair housing, worker safety or healthcare, many of those from the 1970s and '80s. Why the organization continues to keep "Poverty" (or even "Law") in its name can be ascribed only to nostalgia or a cynical understanding of the marketing possibilities in class guilt. It barely even handles death penalty cases anymore, and lawyers struggling in the South to save the lives of people, mostly poor, on Death Row, will never forget that it was Morris Dees who smoothed the way to a federal judgeship for Ed Carnes, author of Alabama's death penalty statute and a notorious hanging judge.

With allies like Carnes and a salary close to $300,000 putting him among the top 2 percent of Americans, Dees needn't worry about "fitting in" with the masses of Montgomery. Naturally, he'd erect a multimillion-dollar office building that's a monstrosity. "I hate it," a security guard across the street told me, as the sun's hot rays bounced off the building's vast brushed-stainless-steel-clad southern exposure and onto his face, making him sweat, roasting his skin while he stood watch for the militia nuts Dees would have his donors believe are lurking around every corner.

So, readers, rip up those pledges to the Southern Poverty Law Center...

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