The Southern Poverty Law Center has fired Morris Dees, the nonprofit civil rights organization’s co-founder and former chief litigator.
SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a statement Dees’ dismissal was effective on Wednesday, March 13. When pressed for details on what led to the termination, the organization declined to elaborate.
“As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world,” Cohen said in the emailed statement. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.”
Dees, 82, started the Montgomery-based organization in 1971.
“It was not my decision, what they did,” Dees said when reached by phone. “I wish the center the absolute best. Whatever reasons they had of theirs, I don’t know.”
On Thursday, he said he hadn’t tried a case in at least a decade and hadn’t recently been involved in the day-to-day operations of the SPLC.
Dees’ termination is one of several steps taken by the organization this week, Cohen said.
“Today we announced a number of immediate, concrete next steps we’re taking, including bringing in an outside organization 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,” Cohen said.
An SPLC spokesperson said the organization was “in the process of hiring” the firm for the workplace climate assessment, and no other leadership changes had been announced.
A message seeking further comment was left on Cohen’s cell phone Thursday afternoon.
“I’ve read the statement they issued,” Dees said when asked if he knew why he was fired. “I feel like some of the things in the statement were unfortunate. But I refuse to say anything negative about the center or its employees. I’ll let my life’s work and reputation speak for itself.”
When asked if he was offered the chance to resign or retire, the 82-year-old said, “I’ve told you all I can tell you.”
Dees’ biography appeared scrubbed from the SPLC’s website as news broke of his termination on Thursday afternoon.
Morris Dees, an SPLC founder
A Montgomery native, Dees attended Sidney Lanier High School. He burnished his marketing chops by managing a direct sale book publishing company while attending the University of Alabama, where he also earned a law degree.
After returning home to establish a law practice in 1960, Dees won a series of civil rights cases before establishing the SPLC with lawyer Joseph J. Levin Jr. and civil rights activist Julian Bond a decade later.
The legal partnership netted significant civil rights triumphs. Dees challenged systemic discrimination and segregation in Alabama state trooper ranks in a case won in the U.S. Supreme Court. SPLC litigation challenging Alabama’s legislative districts forced the state to redraw its districts in the early 1970s, leading to the election of more than a dozen black legislators in 1974.
Early SPLC lawsuits also fought for better conditions for cotton mill workers in Kentucky, women in the workplace and poor defendants on death row. The organization bankrupted a Ku Klux Klan Organization, the United Klans of America, in a 1987 civil case.
Dees has been a fixture in politics since the group’s ascension, though his organization has faced scrutiny in the past.
A 1994 Montgomery Advertiser series provided a deep look into the organization controlled by the multimillionaire Dees, illustrating his near-singular control over the organization and its mammoth budget.
The series, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, revealed a figure seen as heroic by some and single-minded by others. Dees’ critics said he was more concerned with fundraising than litigating.
The series also alleged discriminatory treatment of black employees within the advocacy group, despite its outward efforts to improve the treatment of minorities in the country. Staffers at the time “accused Morris Dees, the center’s driving force, of being a racist and black employees have ‘felt threatened and banded together.’” The organization denied the accusations raised in the series.
“I would hope the IRS and the Justice Department would take this as [an] opportunity to come in and take a close look at The Center, it’s finances and it’s day-to-day operations,” said Jim Tharpe, managing editor of the Advertiser in the mid-1990s, who oversaw the Advertiser series. “It’s long overdue.”
Dees’ central role in the organization has also led to numerous threats against him, and the Advertiser previously reported that he has 24-hour protection at his home.
Over the years, the SPLC has continued to amass a massive war chest of funds from donors amid differing levels of scrutiny. The nonprofit has hundreds of employees and offices in four states. The organization had nearly $450 million in net assets, according to the most recent publicly available tax documents filed for 2017.
That figure easily dwarfs other civil rights groups — like the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP — during the same timeframe. The Montgomery-based legal group had about $57 million in net assets at that time and the NAACP had about $3.8 million.
SPLC still fell behind other groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, which pulled in more than $526 million between its main nonprofit and foundation in 2017 filings, with several local groups collecting additional millions of dollars not included in that figure.
In recent years, the organization has become nationally known and scrutinized for its Hatewatch work tracking the rise of hate groups, particularly white supremacists.
It produces research and advocacy work on a variety of topics, including payday lending, civil asset forfeiture and immigration rights. The SPLC also continues day-to-day civil rights litigation, including an ongoing lawsuit to address prison conditions in Alabama.
“The SPLC is deeply committed to having a workplace that reflects the values it espouses — truth, justice, equity and inclusion, and we believe the steps we have taken today reaffirm that commitment,” Cohen said.