When I first heard about the Southern Poverty Law Center in the 1980s, it made me proud as a life-long Alabamian. My state was finally the home of a group that targeted racial injustice.
When you consider the reputation – rightly deserved – that Alabama had, the SPLC was a shining spot in a state with a dim history. Not only was the group righting wrongs, it was putting Alabama on the map as a place where discrimination would be fought.
The SPLC was founded in the early 1970s by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr., and Julian Bond was its first president. Its original goal was to sue hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to shut them down by bankrupting them.
It worked. And that was a good thing.
Even today, the money they collect from the lawsuits goes to the victims of discrimination they sue on behalf of. The SPLC doesn’t take a cut, relying only on donations for their income.
That’s another good thing.
But over time, the SPLC expanded its mission to include other hate groups, and they eventually began to court controversy.
Some people have criticized them over their fundraising tactics, saying most of their budget is spent just trying to get more donations. Critics also have said the SPLC overplays the threat of hate groups, such as the KKK, which has dwindled significantly, in its efforts to raise cash.
Political fundraisers do much the same the thing, calling Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner the bogeyman to draw in the cash.
But the biggest criticism the SPLC faces is that it uses a pretty loose definition of what a “hate group” is. It’s website says that just because a group is listed on its hate or extremist lists doesn’t indicate it has committed violence or anything else illegal.
Essentially, you can just have a contrary opinion to the SPLC and be listed as a hater.
As a private organization, the SPLC can label groups as they wish as long as the group in question doesn’t decide to sue for defamation. But critics point out that the FBI has partnered with the SPLC in its efforts to fight discrimination.
If the SPLC is naming groups to extremist lists that simply have ideological differences with the SPLC and the government is taking their advice, that could be a problem.
Last October, the SPLC listed Dr. Ben Carson, a likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate, in its “Extremist Files.” The reason was for things Carson has said in his opposition to same-sex marriage.
On February 8, the conservative Washington Times noticed Carson’s page on the SPLC’s website and wrote about it. Lots of other conservative media followed suit. (Full disclosure: I wrote about the story for Newsmax.)
After three days of intense spotlight, the SPLC removed Carson from their “Extremist Files,” saying the post did not meet the group’s standards and issued an apology.
Well, sort of.
“We’ve also come to the conclusion that the question of whether a better-researched profile of Dr. Carson should or should not be included in our ‘Extremist Files’ is taking attention from the fact that Dr. Carson has, in fact, made a number of statements that express views that we believe most people would conclude are extreme,” the new page on the website reads.
The page then lists all the statements Carson has made that trouble the group.
So, in effect, he’s still on the list.
Carson’s defenders argue that his position on gay marriage is no different than that of President Barack Obama before he “evolved” just before the 2012 election.
The SPLC says they base their “Extremist Files” not on anyone’s position on homosexuality, but on whether that person or group has “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
The SPLC says Carson did that by making such statements as, “Marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s a well-established pillar of society and no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA [North American Man/Boy Association, a group advocating pedophilia], be they people who believe in bestiality — it doesn’t matter what they are, they don’t get to change the definition.”
Whether that makes Carson an extremist probably depends on your political point-of-view. And that’s the point. Media Matters for America makes those sorts of statements about Carson and others on the right, but the difference is the FBI isn’t taking advice from Media Matters.
Prior to the Carson controversy, the SPLC was blamed for inspiring Floyd Lee Corkins II to attack the Family Research Council’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., in August 2012.
Corkins shot and injured a guard before being subdued, but his plan had been to kill people and throw Chik-fil-A sandwiches on their bodies because of the group’s opposition to gay marriage. (A member of the family that owns Chik-fil-A had recently made anti-gay statements to a Christian magazine.)
Corkins found out about the group – and its address – by checking the SPLC’s “Hate Map.” The FRC is no longer on the “Hate Map,” but is still listed in the “Extremist Files.”
Admittedly, some of the stuff Carson and the FRC have said about homosexuality is understandably odious to many, but to compare Carson to former Klan leader David Duke or the FRC to the firebombing, lynching KKK is a stretch.
A lot of conservatives wouldn’t mind seeing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the president’s former pastor, on an extremist list for some of the stuff he’s said. But as long as people aren’t denying anyone their civil rights we shouldn’t try to deny them their First Amendment rights.
The SPLC, a group founded to foster equality and to prevent violence against people is actually guilty of fostering hatred against some who merely hold opposing views. In the FRC case, they appear to have played an inspirational role in gun violence.
I’m still proud of the good work the SPLC has done, but I have trouble with them playing judge, jury and executioner. I would have far more respect if they simply made their case against people with whom they have political differences rather than labeling them a hate group or an extremist.
The good reputation they enjoyed in their early years has turned them into the very thing they have rightly sought to eradicate.