A History of Protecting Society’s Most Vulnerable
The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded to ensure that the promises of the civil rights movement became a reality for all.
By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had ushered in the promise of racial equality as new laws ended legal apartheid in the United States. But the new laws had not yet brought the fundamental changes needed in the South.
Black people were still excluded from good jobs, decent housing, elective office, a quality education and a range of other opportunities. There were few places for the disenfranchised and the poor to turn for justice. Enthusiasm for the civil rights movement had waned and few lawyers in the South were willing to take controversial cases to test new civil rights laws.
Alabama lawyer and businessman Morris Dees sympathized with the plight of the poor and the powerless. The son of an Alabama farmer, he had witnessed firsthand the painful consequences of prejudice and racial injustice. Dees decided to sell his successful book publishing business to start a civil rights law practice that would provide a voice for the disenfranchised.
His decision led to the founding of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I had made up my mind,” Dees wrote in his autobiography, A Season for Justice. “I would sell the company as soon as possible and specialize in civil rights law. All the things in my life that had brought me to this point, all the pulls and tugs of my conscience, found a singular peace. It did not matter what my neighbors would think, or the judges, the bankers, or even my relatives.”
Dees joined forces with another young Montgomery lawyer, Joe Levin. They took pro bono cases few others were willing to pursue - the outcome of which had far-reaching effects. Some of their early lawsuits resulted in the desegregation of recreational facilities, the reapportionment of the Alabama Legislature, the integration of the Alabama State Troopers and reforms in the state prison system.
The lawyers formally incorporated the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971, and civil rights activist Julian Bond was named the first president. Dees and Levin began seeking nationwide support for their work. Committed activists responded from across the country, and the SPLC carried forward its mission of seeking justice and equality for society’s most vulnerable.
In the decades since its founding, the SPLC has shut down some of the nation’s most dangerous hate groups by winning crushing, multimillion-dollar jury verdicts on behalf of their victims. It has dismantled institutional racism in the South, reformed juvenile justice practices, shattered barriers to equality for women, children and the disabled, and protected low-wage immigrant workers from abuse. It also has reached out to the next generation with Teaching Tolerance, a program that provides educators with free classroom materials that teach students the value of tolerance and diversity.
As the country has grown increasingly diverse, the SPLC’s work has only become more vital. And its history is evidence of an unwavering resolve to promote and protect our nation’s most cherished ideals by standing up for those who have no other champions.