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SPLC President: Stories of hope from a difficult year

“Hope” is likely not the first word that comes to mind when you reflect on the year we’ve just had. 2020 was marked by tragic killings, incomprehensible and ever-increasing COVID-related deaths, brazen assaults on our democracy, and deep pain and suffering in communities across the country. We will be grieving and grappling with the consequences of this year for a long time to come.

But through it all – and without ignoring or minimizing all the ways 2020 hurt so many so deeply – there were countless points of inspiration to be found. As we turn the page on this turbulent year, I want to focus on these hopeful stories and the leaders and movements behind them.

Hard-won victories like these strengthen my resolve. They serve as fuel for the collective work ahead. I hope reading about them does the same for you.

Major successes across our work

In 2020 we made heartening progress in all of our issue areas, both in and out of the courts.

In September, the SPLC and its allies won a case blocking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from diverting desperately needed pandemic relief funds away from public schools. In October, another victory forced Immigration and Customs Enforcement to comply fully with court-ordered health assessments for detained people with medical risk factors that increase the threat of serious COVID-19 complications. And just before Thanksgiving, the SPLC, together with the ACLU of Alabama and the National Homelessness Law Center, settled a lawsuit ending the arrest and ticketing of people who panhandle in Montgomery, Alabama.

Meanwhile, our Teaching Tolerance program continued its award-winning work providing thoughtful and effective anti-racist teaching tools to educators across the country. The SPLC also published a guide (in partnership with American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab) to help prevent youth from becoming radicalized by extremism online – a resource that couldn’t be timelier for the millions of families navigating remote schooling during the pandemic. We also launched a brand-new podcast, Sounds Like Hate, which told the stories of everyday people personally impacted by hate and extremism in their communities – and what they are doing about it.

Progress in confronting the legacy of racial injustice

This year, in response to continued police killings of Black and Brown people, activists emerged throughout the Deep South with a clarion call for racial justice – demanding the removal of Confederate symbols and their public celebration of white supremacy.

In Montgomery, four Black women powered a successful movement to rename three schools honoring Confederate leaders. In Jackson, Mississippi, several young Black Lives Matter members organized one of the largest demonstrations in state history in their quest to remove the Confederate emblem from Mississippi’s flag. On Nov. 3, voters overwhelmingly approved a new design. And in Lafayette, Louisiana, local advocates continue their four-year campaign with the hope that it will, at last, result in the removal of a Confederate statue that has loomed over the grounds of what used to be city hall for nearly a century.

These are but a few examples of efforts that span the region. Since George Floyd's death in May, the SPLC has documented the removal or renaming of more than 100 Confederate symbols through our Whose Heritage? project. Across the country, we are seeing the real results of persistent activism as state and local governments begin to make changes that many communities have been requesting for years.

At the national level, Americans chose Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – the first woman, Black person and Asian American to be elected vice president – to lead the nation. Biden has moved to appoint a historically diverse cabinet, “a cabinet that looks like America.”

Notably, in the November election, we also witnessed record turnout in Georgia, the result of a years-long commitment by Stacey Abrams and nonpartisan voter mobilization organizations, many of which received grants from the SPLC’s Vote Your Voice initiative.

History in the making

In a year of historic extremes, the SPLC also took some historic strides.

We adopted a new mission statement:

The SPLC is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people.

We welcomed new members to our board of directors, bringing valuable skills and diverse perspectives to their essential work overseeing the SPLC’s progress.

We made substantial investments – $30 million from our endowment – in voting rights initiatives targeted to communities of color in the South, which still disproportionately face discriminatory barriers to voting. We cannot let that status quo stand, and we are committed to working alongside community members to build a more just future.

As we prepare to celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2021, we are proud to be taking these and other steps necessary to position us for success for the next 50 years.

As ever, we are so grateful to have the support, partnership and collaboration of so many of you across the country. I hope that hearing these stories brings you the same hope – and determination – that it has for me.

If you’re feeling inspired already, here’s one straightforward way to make a difference this week: With just an hour of your time between now and Jan. 5, you can help get out the vote in the Georgia runoff elections, which will determine control of the U.S. Senate. Simply sign up for one of our Power Hours – convenient virtual phone banks using your phone from home – and we’ll walk you through the rest.

Even in this dark year, there is so much to be optimistic about – and so much work to be done. Together, let’s turn the page on 2020 and continue on our journey toward a more just and equitable future for all.

I wish you and your loved ones all the best in the new year.

Photo credits (L-R): Eze Amos/Getty Images (statue removal); Roy Adkins (Mississippi activist); Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images (Harris and Biden); Ethan Miller/Getty Images (Abrams); Stephen Poff (man with dog); Contributed (Montgomery activist); Contributed (Sounds Like Hate podcasters Moriba and Paksima)