The SPLC was founded in 1971 to ensure that the promise 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 federal laws and decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court ended Jim Crow segregation. But resistance was strong, and these laws had not yet brought the fundamental changes needed in the South.
African Americans were still excluded from good jobs, decent housing, public 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 devastating consequences of bigotry 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.
“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.”
His decision led to the founding of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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 trooper force and reforms in the state prison system.
The lawyers formally incorporated the SPLC in 1971, and civil rights activist Julian Bond was named the first president. Dees and Levin began seeking nationwide support for their work. People from across the country responded with generosity, establishing a sound financial base for the new organization.
In the decades since its founding, the SPLC shut down some of the nation’s most violent white supremacist groups by winning crushing, multimillion-dollar jury verdicts on behalf of their victims. It dismantled vestiges of Jim Crow, reformed juvenile justice practices, shattered barriers to equality for women, children, the LGBT community and the disabled, protected low-wage immigrant workers from exploitation, and more.
In the 1980s, the SPLC began monitoring white supremacist activity amid a resurgence of the Klan and today its Intelligence Project is internationally known for tracking and exposing a wide variety of hate and extremist organizations throughout the United States.
In the early 1990s, the SPLC launched its pioneering Teaching Tolerance program (now Learning for Justice) to provide educators with free, anti-bias classroom resources such as classroom documentaries and lesson plans. Today, it reaches millions of schoolchildren with award-winning materials that teach them to respect others and help educators create inclusive, equitable school environments.
As the country has grown increasingly diverse, our work has only become more vital. And our 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.