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Klanwatch Project

 

By David B. Kopel

From Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture and the Law (Gregg Lee Carter ed., ABC-CLIO 2002).

 

The Klanwatch Project was an operation of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which is based in Montgomery, Alabama, and headed by Morris Dees. Klanwatch has been merged into the SPLC’s “Intelligence Project,” which keeps tabs on “hate groups” and the “Patriot Movement.” The SPLC is a widely-quoted source among journalists and has a very strong base of donors. Critics, such as the authors of a two-year investigation for the Montgomery Advertiser, charge that the SPLC is a cynical fund-raising machine which terrifies donors about non-existent threats, and that the SPLC dishonestly maligns people for political gain.

The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1971 by attorney Morris Dees. Dees, a direct mail entrepreneur, sold cookbooks, birthday cakes, tractor seat cushions, and rat poison. But Dees became a national figure when he turned his direct mail skills to George McGovern’s successful insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Dees made McGovern the first major presidential candidate to raise large sums from small-sized donations solicited by direct mail.

Direct mail political fund-raising was in its infancy when Dees used the 700,000 names on the McGovern mailing list to begin raising funds for the SPLC. But Dees proved himself a great master of the new art. The SPLC’s endowment stands at approximately $120 million dollars, far more than better-known groups such as the NAACP or the ACLU. In 1998, Dees was inducted into the Direct Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame.

More recently, Dees has applied his skills to the Internet. The SPLC’s website has offered visitors the opportunity to buy $30 “Teaching Tolerance” kits, which the website promised to be actually valued at $325. In 2000, the SPLC and several Internet search engines implemented a plan by which web surfers who searched for certain intolerant key words would be redirected to a website run by the SPLC.

In 1999, the SPLC earned $17 million in income from its investments, and raised $27 million from donors. The same year, the SPLC spent $13 million on its program, approximately half of which was spent on producing direct-mail solicitations and paying for postage. The American Institute of Philanthropy gives the SPLC a D rating because of the SPLC’s large excess of income over program expenditures, and because of the SPLC’s refusal to disclose basic financial information.

During the 1970s, the main focus of the SPLC was litigation, and the SPLC won some notable cases, including forcing the Alabama state troopers to adopt an affirmative action program, requiring cotton mills to better working conditions for employees with brown lung disease, and changing the tax structure in Kentucky.

In 1981, the SPLC began its Klanwatch Project, which was later expanded to cover a variety of different targets. In 1986, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s entire legal staff quit, upset that the SPLC was no longer practicing poverty law, but was instead focused on the Ku Klux Klan.

Although the SPLC did death penalty legal work in the 1970s, and still touts its “innovative” work in that field, the SPLC no longer takes death penalty cases. Critics charge that the SPLC’s abandonment of such cases is meant to avoid scaring off the SPLC’s mostly-white donor base. The Southern Center for Human Rights (http://schr.org/center/), an Atlanta group specializing in death penalty defense, is one of a number of poverty law organizations which are upset that the SPLC raises so much money, and does so little (in their view) for poor people and people of color. In 1996, the Human Rights group’s director Stephen Bright denounced Dees as “a fraud and a conman.”

In 1994, the SPLC created a separate militia watch unit, dedicated to the militia movement and the patriot movement. Today, these SPLC units have been merged into the Intelligence Project.

The Klanwatch Project had proved to be a tremendous revenue center for the SPLC, but even greater fund-raising success resulted from the rise of the militia movement, and from the Oklahoma City bombing.

The Intelligence Project publishes a quarterly Intelligence Reportmagazine of information about its target groups. Staff members conduct training for police, schools, and local groups. The Intelligence Project reports that its staff has collected “dossiers” on thousands of suspected militia members or militia sympathizers, and has placed infiltrators in the militia movement. The Intelligence Project supplies information to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Intelligence Project staff also lobby state and federal lawmakers, in support of a variety of laws, such as “Militia Training” bills to prohibit group firearms training or use accompanied by political discussion. The Intelligence Project is frequently quoted in American and foreign media as an expert source on the patriot movement, militias, hate groups, and others. The Project’s periodic reports on the numbers and names of such groups often attract substantial media coverage. As an expert source in reported stories, as a background influence on media attitudes, and through direct mail communication with a large donor base, the SPLC has played a very major role in shaping what much of the American public believes about the militia movement and the patriot movement.

Dees is the author of three books. A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer is a 1991 autobiography. The same year, he received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association.

Hate on Trial: The Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi, co-authored with Steve Fiffer, tells the story of a civil lawsuits that the SPLC brought against Tom Metzger.

Highly publicized anti-Klan and anti-Nazi suits are the SPLC’s most prominent legal work. The most famous came in 1987, when the SPLC recovered $51,875 for Beula Mae Donald, the mother of a black man who had been lynched by two members of the United Klans of America. The SPLC garnered $9 million from fund-raising related to the case, and has been criticized by some people for not sharing any of the fund-raising revenue with Mrs. Donald. The SPLC direct mail letters touted the size of the verdict awarded by the jury – a spectacular seven million dollars – but did not mention that the Klans’ seizable assets amounted to less than one percent of the nominal verdict.

Dees ’ third book is Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat, co-authored with James Corcoran. Dees warned that the militia movement “could lead to widespread devastation or ruin.” The book argued that the militia movement is the creation of Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam, although Dees wrote that most militia members were not racists, but rather dupes of Beams’ conspiracy.

The book claimed that the “citzens’ militia movement. . .led to the most destructive act of terrorism in our nation’s history” – the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Fundraising appeals from the SPLC have continued to tie bomber Timothy McVeigh to the militia and patriot movements, although no evidence has ever been produced that he was part of either one.

Dees did present what he regards as circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that after being arrested, McVeigh only supplied his name, and no other information. This conduct, Dees noted, is consistent with instructions for members of the Militia of Michigan if they are captured. Dees did not note that the instruction is also given to all soldiers of the United States Army, in which McVeigh served.

Gathering Storm also promoted gun control, and argued that the Second Amendment guarantees no individual right.

The book was heavily praised by New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal, President Jimmy Carter, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and by most reviewers.

Mainstream press coverage of the SPLC has generally been extremely favorable; Dees is subject of an admiring made-for-television movie biography, >"Line of Fire", in which Corbin Bernson portrays Dees.

The SPLC was, however, sharply criticized in an award-winning investigative 1994 series in the Montgomery Advertiser. The series accused the SPLC of taking in far more than it spends, of enjoying lavish offices (the current SPLC office is locally known as the “Poverty Palace,” and a new $6 million building will soon become the new headquarters) and high salaries (Dees makes $275,000 a year, far more than the heads of almost all other American non-profits), and of consistently exaggerating its need for money in direct mail fundraising. The Advertisersuggested that the SPLC preyed on gullible northern donors by creating vastly exaggerated pictures of the prevalence and danger of barely viable groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

According to the Advertiser, many non-white former employees of the SPLC complained about racial discrimination, racial slurs, or condescension within the organization.

Laird Wilcox, a scholar who studies political extremist organizations of both the right and the left, and the organizations which oppose them, offers a different critique: “The SPLC tends to view their critics and the groups they hate as essentially subhuman ... and the campaign against them acquires the character of ‘total warfare,’ where any distortion, fabrication or sleazy legal tactic is justified in terms of the struggle.”

The SPLC’s annually-released lists of hate groups, militias, and Patriot movement groups and leaders has not always been accurate in its characterizations. For example, Bob Glass, a Jewish owner of a gun store in Longmont, Colorado, was labeled an anti-semite. Groups interested in Norse mythology have been labeled as neo-Nazis; groups interested in promoting Southern culture and romantic views of the Confederacy have been called racist. Militia and Patriot groups – and even mainstream political conservatives -- have been subjected to repeated innuendo claiming that they are violent or that they promote violence.

Barbara Dority (president of Humanists of Washington, executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anticensorship Taskforce) criticizes the SPLC for using guilt by association, and for reporting its ideological opponents to law enforcement agencies, while simultaneously proclaiming its belief in “tolerance.” (Barbara Dority, “Is the Extremist Right Entirely Wrong?” The Humanist, Nov./Dec. 1995.)
 

See also:Ku Klux Klan. McVeigh, Timothy, Militias, Oklahoma City Bombing

 

For further information:

Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue
Montgomery, Alabama 36104

334/956-8200

http://www.splcenter.org/

 

Morris Dees, Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat (HarperCollins, 1997)

Greg Jaffe and Dan Morse, “Rising Fortunes: Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center,” MontgomeryAdvertiser, November 1994.

Ken Silverstein, “The Church of Morris Dees,” Harper’s Magazine, Nov. 2000.

Laird Wilcox, The Watchdogs: A Close Look at the Anti-Racist “Watchdog” Groups (2nd ed., 1999).

 

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