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Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder

Matt Pearce and Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

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."

The Los Angeles Times has also learned that the organization, whose leadership is predominantly white, has been wrestling with complaints that women and people of color employed there do not feel valued. It was not immediately clear whether those issues were connected to the firing of Dees.

Employees also sent two group letters to management on Thursday demanding reforms, sparked at least in part by the resignation last week of a highly respected black attorney at the organization.

One letter -- signed by about two dozen employees and sent to the board of directors before news broke of Dees' firing -- said 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."

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Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 and gained notoriety 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 targeted in lawsuits or published research by the 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.

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