12/27/2013

SPLC in 2013: A year of progress amid a radical attack on America’s fundamental values

With the support of thousands of people committed to equality, we’ve made great progress fighting hate and seeking justice in 2013, despite facing a historic backlash against the gains of the last 50 years – a radical attack on our country’s most fundamental ideals.

We saw this backlash in the anger of fringe Tea Party followers who would shred the social safety net. We saw it in the continuing rise of far-right extremist groups that threaten violence. And we heard it in the words of reckless politicians and pundits who stoke the fires of hate and bigotry.

The fear and anger on the far right reflects a phenomenon we’ve been worried about: a toxic reaction to our country’s growing diversity and the progress we’ve made toward equality for all.

As 2013 unfolded, the SPLC fought back against the reactionaries bent on turning back the clock. In the courts, we represented the most vulnerable in our society –those who have been exploited, abused and attacked. And, in classrooms across the nation, we worked for a better tomorrow by fostering respect and tolerance among our nation’s youth.

The following review highlights some of our major accomplishments and activities over the past year.

Fighting hate and extremism
As 2013 began, we closely monitored and alerted the public to the continuing, dramatic rise of the radical right – particularly the armed militias and similar, conspiracy-minded groups that view our own federal government as the enemy.

These so-called “Patriot” groups have risen by more than 800 percent since President Obama, a lightning rod for the radical right, was first elected – from 149 groups in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012. At the same time, the number of hate groups has leaped to an all-time high.

We’ve already seen a series of terrorist plots and violent attacks hatched by this reconstituted Patriot movement, which produced the Oklahoma City bombing in the 1990s. It’s why we’re pressing the federal government to devote the resources necessary to combat homegrown terrorists.

What’s more, we’re arming law enforcement agencies with key intelligence and providing face-to-face training to thousands of officers. After a member of a white supremacist prison gang murdered the head of Colorado’s prison system this year, we produced a training video to help officers keep these gangs from exporting violence into our communities.

We’re now tracking nearly 2,400 extremist groups – shining a light on their  activities, disrupting their operations and exposing the demonizing propaganda they seek to inject into the media and political mainstream.

Standing up for immigrants
We’re also winning justice for immigrant families and workers who are facing strong headwinds of bigotry and discrimination as they reach for their American Dream.

Earlier this year, we won an important victory in Alabama by reaching a court settlement that effectively gutted the state’s racist anti-immigrant law, the most radical in the country. You may have seen the headline in The New York Times – “Alabama Surrenders.” Because of our suit, the law’s most egregious provisions – like the one targeting the state’s schoolchildren – have been permanently blocked.

We stood up to employers and unscrupulous labor brokers who exploit foreign “guest workers” lured to this country for temporary jobs, often under false pretenses. We won, for example, a $4.5 million verdict on behalf of 350 Filipino teachers in Louisiana who were each cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars and forced into exploitive contracts.

And, we’re helping people like Joel Licea, a star high school student. His dream of attending the University of South Carolina was shattered when he was told to pay triple the normal tuition because of his parents’ immigration status – even though he was born and raised in that state. We intervened for Joel – and won. We won similar victories to help many other deserving students in Florida and Alabama.

Defending the LGBT community
Despite historic gains over the past few years, members of the LGBT community continue to face widespread discrimination and bigotry.

We’re committed to ensuring fundamental rights and dignity for LGBT people, and we’ve filed a number of important civil rights cases on their behalf. Our case on behalf of a decorated veteran, for example, led to a landmark ruling this year that the Department of Veterans Affairs can no longer discriminate against veterans in same-sex marriages. Within a week of the ruling, President Obama directed the attorney general to stop enforcing the law at issue in the case.

Of course, the battle for LGBT rights is far from over – particularly in the Deep South, where discrimination is rampant. Pat Newton ran into such discrimination when she attempted to open a nightclub in Shannon, Miss., that would welcome the LGBT community. When Pat went before the town’s aldermen for a business license, she found a hostile crowd waiting and was denied the license because of her clientele. We filed a federal lawsuit to protect her rights. 

Also, in the small town of Moss Point, Miss., we’re representing a 16-year-old girl, Destin, whose life was made a living hell simply because she’s a lesbian. Destin was relentlessly harassed and called names by students – and at times by school officials – and singled out for separate treatment by teachers because of her sexual orientation. We have taken forceful legal action to help Destin as part of our campaign to ensure a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students.  

And, in an LGBT parenting case in Alabama this year, we won standard visitation rights for a lesbian mother whose former husband had denied her access to her four young children because she is gay. It is one of the first known instances that an Alabama judge has recognized equal visitation rights to a lesbian mother without overnight restrictions on unmarried partners.

We also fought conversion therapy – a dangerous and thoroughly discredited practice that purports to convert people from gay to straight – by pushing forward with a lawsuit accusing a New Jersey group of consumer fraud for offering such services.

Protecting vulnerable children
In 2013, our commitment to helping disadvantaged children led to several important victories, and we filed new lawsuits that will help thousands of minority youths, many of them living in dire poverty, as they struggle to overcome the legacy of Jim Crow segregation in the Deep South.  

In Polk County, Florida, we reached an agreement with the school board that will ensure children held at a county jail receive an appropriate education.

In Birmingham, Ala., we continued to fight in court to defend the rights of students, mostly African-American, who are being doused with pepper spray by police stationed in the city’s schools.

We’re also standing up for poor children in Alabama’s Black Belt who are trapped in failing schools while more-fortunate families are given tax breaks to send their children to private schools or succeeding public schools. We’ve asked a federal court to block the Alabama Accountability Act because it violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause by creating two classes of students in failing schools – those who can escape because of their parents’ income or where they live and those who cannot.

We also filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging that the Florida Department of Education is discriminating against black and Hispanic students by adopting an achievement plan that sets lower academic expectations for students of color. 

In Louisiana, we reached an agreement to improve equal access to Jefferson Parish’s Head Start program, which had prevented impoverished Latino preschoolers from enrolling. And in Alabama, we reached an agreement with Mobile County Public Schools to reduce the damaging suspensions of students for minor misbehavior.

These are just a few of the ways we’re helping children across the Deep South.

Teaching the next generation
We know we won’t achieve equality through the courts alone. The future of our country lies in the hands of today’s young people. That’s why our Teaching Tolerance program is reaching into schools across America with award-winning anti-bias resources – books, films, lesson plans and other resources – to counter bigotry and create nurturing classrooms.

Our classroom film Bullied, designed to show students and teachers the devastating impact of anti-LGBT harassment, continued to be in high demand. Each month during the school year, we filled more than 1,500 orders from schools around the country, free of charge.

This year, Teaching Tolerance also reached millions of students with Mix It Up at Lunch Day, a program that encourages students to step out of their cliques for one day and meet someone new. More than 6,000 schools from all over the country participated.

We also developed a curriculum, for launch early next year, to help ensure that classroom lessons provide perspectives that reflect our nation’s diversity. And, we provided educators across the country with practices to ensure all children, including LGBT students, feel welcome at school.

While there are many encouraging signs that the next generation is embracing equality, much work remains to turn back the radical attack on our country’s most fundamental ideals. That’s why the SPLC, with the help of thousands of dedicated  supporters, remains committed to fighting hate, teaching tolerance and seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society in 2014 and beyond.

I want to personally thank you for supporting this vital work and for everything you do for justice in your community.