March 22, 2019
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has survived lawsuits, shady financial dealings, multi-million-dollar settlements for defamation, embarrassing retractions, even a link to domestic terrorism in court. But will it survive this latest revelation? After years of the media's Teflon-provided protection, the group's downfall may be coming from a place no one expected: the inside. If you thought the Morris Dees allegations were shocking, buckle up. One former employee says it's nothing compared to the cancerous workplace he called home.
"In the decade or so before I'd arrived," Bob Moser writes, "the center's reputation as a beacon of justice had taken some hits from reporters who'd peered behind the façade... Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me -- it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we'd stepped into with our noble intentions." Young women, he tells the New Yorker, were warned about Dees's reputation as a sexual predator. They heard that Richard Cohen, SPLC's president, "made staffers pessimistic" that the real issues would ever be addressed. In most cases, by the time they found out they were all pawns in a "highly profitable scam," it was too late.
Moser, who left the group in 2004, paints a sinister picture of the organization -- especially when it comes to the civil injustice his group was supposedly fighting. "Nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff -- 'the help,' one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The 'professional staff' -- the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers -- were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay."
Bewildered, he asked one of his coworkers about it. "'Well, honey, welcome to the Poverty Palace,' she said. 'I can guaran[tee] that you will never step foot in a more contradictory place as long as you live.' 'Everything feels so out of whack,' I said... 'Where's the diversity? What in God's name is going on here?' ... 'Clearly,'" she laughed, "'you didn't do your research.'"
When Dees was fired last week, Moser explains, "the queasy feelings came rushing back." Suddenly, the SPLC alumni were reconnecting he says. Each wondering: why now? "It could be racial, sexual, financial -- that place was a virtual buffet of injustices," one former coworker told Moser. But, as a lot of current staffers told him, firing Dees doesn't solve the deeper problem. There's a "widespread pattern of racial and gender discrimination," they argue. The question is, "How many chickens will come to justice before this long-overdue reckoning is complete?"
For SPLC, the timing of this latest scandal couldn't come at a worse time. It erupted, Moser points out, "at a moment when the SPLC had never been more prominent, or more profitable. Donald Trump's presidency opened up a gusher of donations..." Even when he was there, the staff used to joke at the memorial near the organization's lunch center with the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote "Until justice rolls down like waters" -- and joke, "Until justice rolls down like dollars."
The annual "hate group" list, Moser notes, the same one that led Floyd Corkins to our door determined to commit mass murder, is just another sign of Dees's "marketing talents." The more people SPLC targets, the more money it can raise pointing to the rising tide of hate. "'The SPLC -- making hate pay,' we'd say." But there was nothing funny about it, he muses. Not even then.
"For those of us who've worked in the Poverty Palace," he says, "putting it all into perspective isn't easy, even to ourselves." Moser felt like they were working with "a group of dedicated and talented people, fighting all kinds of good fights."
And yet, all the time, dark shadows hung over everything: the racial and gender disparities, the whispers about sexual harassment, the abuses that stemmed from the top-down management, and the guilt you couldn't help feeling about the legions of donors who believed that their money was being used, faithfully and well, to do the Lord's work in the heart of Dixie. We were part of the con, and we knew it."
"...Were we complicit, by taking our paychecks and staying silent, in ripping off donors on behalf of an organization that never lived up to the values it espoused? Did we enable racial discrimination and sexual harassment by failing to speak out? 'Of course we did,' a former colleague told me, as we parsed the news over the phone... A couple of days later, she texted me: 'I'm having SPLC nightmares.' Aren't we all, I thought."
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.