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[Washington Babylon]

“Hate,” Immigration, and the Southern Poverty Law Center

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I spoke at a panel last week sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a conservative group, about its new report on the Southern Poverty Law Center. The report examines the efforts by the Law Center “to smear the Federation for American Immigration Reform and, by extension, the Center for Immigration Studies.”

For the record, I am totally opposed to CIS’s stance on immigration, as I stated at the press conference. I accepted the invitation to speak on the panel because it came from my friend Jerry Kammer, of whom I am a big admirer.

I also agreed to the invitation because, much like CIS, I feel that the Law Center is essentially a fraud and that it has a habit of casually labeling organizations as “hate groups.” (Which doesn’t mean that some of the groups it criticizes aren’t reprehensible.) In doing so, the SPLC shuts down debate, stifles free speech, and most of all, raises a pile of money, very little of which is used on behalf of poor people.

Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote about the SPLC for Harper’s back in 2000:

Today, the SPLC spends most of its time–and money–on a relentless fund-raising campaign, peddling memberships in the church of tolerance with all the zeal of a circuit rider passing the collection plate. “He’s the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement,” renowned anti- death-penalty lawyer Millard Farmer says of Dees, his former associate, “though I don!t mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye.” The Center earned $44 million last year alone–$27 million from fund-raising and $17 million from stocks and other investments–but spent only $13 million on civil rights programs, making it one of the most profitable charities in the country.

In 1987, Dees won a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, whose son was lynched by two Klansmen. The UKA’s total assets amounted to a warehouse whose sale netted Mrs. Donald $51,875. According to a groundbreaking series of newspaper stories in the Montgomery Advertiser, the SPLC, meanwhile, made $9 million from fund-raising solicitations featuring the case, including one containing a photo of Michael Donald’s corpse.

The SPLC is already the wealthiest civil rights group in America, though this letter quite naturally omits that fact. Other solicitations have been more flagrantly misleading. One pitch, sent out in 1995-when the Center had more than $60 million in reserves-informed would-be donors that the “strain on our current operating budget is the greatest in our 25-year history.” Back in 1978, when the Center had less than $10 million, Dees promised that his organization would quit fund-raising and live off interest as soon as its endowment hit $55 million. But as it approached that figure, the SPLC upped the bar to $100 million, a sum that, one 1989 newsletter promised, would allow the Center “to cease the costly and often unreliable task of fund raising. ” Today, the SPLC’s treasury bulges with $120 million, and it spends twice as much on fund-raising-$5.76 million last year-as it does on legal services for victims of civil rights abuses.

The SPLC operates on the same basis today. Oh, except its treasury is now up to $175 million or so, bigger than the GNP of some of the world’s smaller nations.

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