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Southern Poverty Law Center

Further Readings

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an internationally known nonprofit organization that files CLASS ACTION lawsuits to fight discrimination and unequal treatment; it also tracks hate groups and runs a program to educate Americans about racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance. The organization has received numerous awards and accolades for its work. It has also been the subject of vociferous attacks by racist and anti-Semitic groups as well as "white power" advocates.

Based in Montgomery, Alabama, the SPLC was founded in 1971 by attorneys Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. along with CIVIL RIGHTS leader JULIAN BOND. Dees graduated from the University of Alabama Law School in 1960 and started a private law practice in the state's capitol city Montgomery. In 1967 Dees began to gain notoriety for being willing to handle unpopular civil rights cases. Levin, who had returned home from army service to join his father's law practice, indicated his interest in the type of cases Dees was handling. The two attorneys started a law practice that specialized in civil rights cases. Their practice eventually developed into the Southern Poverty Law Center. Levin functioned as legal director of the Center from 1971 to 1976. During that period Levin worked on more than 50 significant civil rights cases. Levin left the center in 1976 but continued his involvement with the Center serving as president and board chair. In 1996 Levin returned to Montgomery to become the center's chief executive officer. Julian Bond, a civil rights activist who co-founded the STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC) in 1960 and later served four terms on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), became the first president of the center. In 2003 he continued to serve as president emeritus.

The center has specialized in class action lawsuits that challenge SEGREGATION in numerous spheres. One case from the 1970s resulted in the election of 17 African American legislators to the Alabama General Assembly. Until 1972 there were no African Americans among the Alabama State Troopers. A lawsuit filed by the center that year resulted in a decision requiring the state to hire one qualified African American trooper for each Caucasian trooper hired until the former comprised 25 percent of the force. State officials fought the order and the case was litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1987 the Court decided in favor of the plaintiffs. By 1995 opposition had ended and in 2003, the Alabama State Troopers had the highest percentage of minority officers of any state in the nation.

In 1976 the center challenged the inhumane conditions of Alabama prisons. Since prevailing in that case, the center has worked with state officials to reform the prison system. In 1995 the state reestablished a practice whereby prison inmates were shackled together as they worked along the state highways. The center sued the state and eventually obtained an agreement prohibiting the use of "chain gangs" in Alabama.

The center has also challenged Georgia state officials and their eligibility guidelines for providing services to children with learning disabilities as well as advocating for the provision of adequate care and health services for persons with mental retardation. In addition to LOBBYING for better care for emotionally disturbed children in foster care, the center has sought more assistance for adults with mental illness. The center also challenged Alabama's failure to provide MEDICAID recipients with medically necessary transportation. A federal court upheld the center's action, and in 1996 the state began operating a program that helped provide affordable transportation to more than 40,000 Medic-aid recipients. Although this ruling was overturned on appeal, the state continued to provide non-emergency Medicaid transportation.

The center has also successfully fought for safer working conditions for employees of the Alabama's cotton mills, for fair housing treatment for African Americans in Alabama who faced RACIAL DISCRIMINATION when trying to lease apartments, for tax EQUITY in Kentucky, and for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the dome of Alabama's state capitol building. Additionally, the center has waged and won major battles over the convictions of a number of cases where inmates in southern states have faced CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.

In response to the resurgence of the KU KLUX KLAN (KKK) in 1981, the center began to monitor hate activity. In the early 2000s the center's Intelligence Project was tracking the activities of more than 600 active hate groups including the KKK, Neo-Nazis, Black separatists, and other racist and extremist organizations. The center's quarterly periodical, Intelligence Report, provides comprehensive information on these groups to law enforcement agencies as well as the media and the general public. Center staff conduct training sessions regarding these groups for law enforcement agencies, schools, and community groups. In addition the center offers online hate-crime training on its Web site in conjunction with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and Auburn University Montgomery.

In addition to being the subject of continuous vitriolic attacks by extremist organizations, whose activity it monitors, the center was the subject of strong criticism by Washington, D.C. based writer Ken Silverstein. Writing in the November 2000 issue of Harper's Magazine, Silverstein accused the center of raising millions of dollars from fund-raising and investments but spending only a portion of the money raised on its civil rights programs. In 2003 the center continued to promote its "Teach Tolerance" campaign throughout the United States.

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