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Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder Morris Dees amid employee uproar

Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder Morris Dees amid employee uproar
Morris Dees, shown in 2011, co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971. The anti-extremist legal group, which is facing workplace complaints from women and people of color, gave no official reason for his departure. (Joe Ellis / Clarion-Ledger)

The Southern Poverty Law Center has fired its famed co-founder, Morris Dees, over unspecified misconduct, the nonprofit announced Thursday, a stunning development at an organization that became a bedrock of anti-extremism research and activism under nearly half a century of Dees’ leadership.

While the organization’s leadership did not disclose the reason for Dees’ departure, staff at its headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., were told in an internal email that “although he made unparalleled contributions to our work, no one’s contributions can excuse that person’s inappropriate conduct.”

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The Times has also learned that the organization, whose leadership is predominantly white, has been wrestling with complaints of workplace mistreatment of women and people of color. It was not immediately clear whether those issues were connected to the firing of Dees, who is 82.

Also Thursday, employees sent correspondence to management demanding reforms, expressing concerns about the resignation last week of a highly respected black attorney at the organization and criticizing the organization’s work culture.

A letter signed by about two dozen employees — and sent to management and the board of directors before news broke of Dees’ firing — said they were concerned that internal “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”

In a public statement, Richard Cohen, president of the SPLC, announced that an outside organization would be hired immediately “to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices, to ensure that our talented staff is working in the environment that they deserve — one in which all voices are heard and all staff members are respected.”

Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 and gained fame by suing members of the Ku Klux Klan, which resulted in the anti-hate organization’s offices being firebombed in 1983.

The son of a white tenant farmer in Alabama, he cut a swashbuckling figure as a Klan-busting attorney in the Deep South, drawing scorn in some mainstream corners for his showmanship and his prodigious fundraising abilities, which he had honed in his previous life as a millionaire direct-mail marketer.

His 1991 autobiography “reads like a treatment for a Hollywood epic,” The Times wrote in a review at the time.

In less mainstream corners, Dees’ name is loathed by white nationalists and other far-right groups that have been targeted in lawsuits or published research by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s staff of lawyers, analysts and undercover operatives. In recent years, some conservatives have accused the center of casting too wide a net in defining what is a “hate” group.

In his statement about Dees, Cohen wrote: “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.”

Asked about the nature of Dees’ alleged misconduct, a spokesman for the organization said in an email: “We can’t comment on the details of individual personnel decisions.”

In an interview Thursday, Dees told the Montgomery Advertiser: "It was not my decision, what they did. I wish the center the absolute best. Whatever reasons they had of theirs, I don't know."

Lower-level staff members were caught off guard by Dees’ firing, which was announced internally in an email and a conference call Thursday morning.

Dees was not a regular presence for low-level staff at the organization’s sleek, modern downtown Montgomery headquarters, whose lobby contains remains from the firebombing as a memento and which is guarded by security staff.

In recent years, according to the center’s internal email to staff, Dees’ role has been focused on “donor relations" — expanding the Southern Poverty Law Center’s financial resources, which nearly totaled half a billion dollars in assets in 2017, according to the group’s most recently available public financial disclosures.

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The center’s war chest vastly overshadows the minuscule financial resources that some far-right groups are capable of assembling, making it a frequent target for criticism, though the organization has also expanded its efforts to support more traditional civil liberties litigation, including fighting for better prison conditions.

Dees has not been involved in the liberal-leaning organization’s “programmatic initiatives,” such as the Hatewatch blog. Cohen is the top leader most often featured and interviewed in the press as the organization has geared up to face a far-right movement that has grown energized in recent years. (Cohen did not respond to requests for further comment.)

Over his more than 40 years at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dees formed coalitions with major civil rights groups, including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and his departure took some civil rights leaders by surprise.

"Wow, that is a shocker to me," said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP chapter. "We don't have a comment until we see what this is about."

Simelton’s organization has frequently teamed with the Southern Poverty Law Center on civil rights lawsuits.

The center has faced complaints in the past that it does not employ enough black staffers.

In an internal email to the organization’s legal department announcing her departure last Friday, a black attorney suggested the center needed to create a more inclusive work environment.

“As a woman of color, the experiences of staff of color and female staff have been particularly important to me ... and we recognize that 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,” she wrote.

The Times is not identifying the attorney because she could not immediately be reached to confirm the authorship of the message.

The center’s leaders forwarded the attorney’s email to the rest of the center’s staff, saying that they were “grateful” for her work and that she “raised important issues of gender and race — issues that the leadership of SPLC is committed to addressing in an honest and forthright manner,” including additional training for management for “racial equity, inclusion and results.”

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“We’ll be soliciting additional ideas from across the organization on how we can be more diverse, equitable and inclusive,” the managers' email said. It was signed by Cohen and the organization’s legal director and director of human resources.

Stephen Bright, a Yale law professor and former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, has long questioned what he calls the center’s “fraudulent” fundraising.

“The chickens have had a very long trip, but they finally came home to roost," Bright said.

“Morris is a flimflam man and he’s managed to flimflam his way along for many years raising money by telling people about the Ku Klux Klan and hate groups,” he said. “He sort of goes to whatever will sell and has, of course, brought in millions and millions and millions of dollars.”

While the SPLC funded some good work, Bright said, he had long heard complaints about race discrimination and sexual harassment from the center’s former attorneys and interns.

“It’s remarkable," he said, "how many people who have worked at the center have not spoken very well of the center after they left."

Times staff writer Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta and Jaweed Kaleem in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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