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The SPLC in 2021: A year of accomplishment amid unprecedented challenges

By the time January 2021 rolled around, the world had been immersed in the COVID-19 pandemic for a year. At the same time, our nation spent a summer of discontent evaluating its relationship with race in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the latest in a long line of Black people who died at the hands of police who were sworn to protect and serve them.

And, after four years of an administration that energized and emboldened a surging white nationalist movement, the presidential campaign ended with false claims by the loser, Donald Trump, that he had failed to win only because of widespread election fraud in key swing states.

The nation was tired. Crossing the line that said we had survived 2020 was an emotional marker that allowed the previous year to be wrapped up, tied with a bow and put on the shelf.

Then, on Jan. 6, we got sucker-punched. The world watched as a violent mob smashed its way into the U.S. Capitol, setting the stage for a year of turmoil as conservative legislatures across the country launched a coordinated attack on voting rights.

It was a challenging year for the Southern Poverty Law Center as it celebrated its 50th year of fighting for justice in the South and beyond. But the SPLC and its partner organizations – with the support of compassionate people nationwide – fought back against far-right extremism and injustice.

“In the past year, we saw our democracy and the rule of law come under attack as extremist disinformation infected the political system and a former president encouraged a movement that rejects the values our nation is based upon,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the SPLC. “We must be clear-eyed about the very serious challenges ahead and stand with the communities that are most affected.”

New efforts, new direction

Even as the SPLC adapted to accommodate the ongoing pandemic in 2021, it launched several new efforts and revamped some existing programs.

One prominent revision was the retirement of the Teaching Tolerance name, with the SPLC’s educational outreach program – launched in the early 1990s – being rebranded as Learning for Justice (LFJ) under the leadership of a new director.

“We’ve changed our name to better reflect our mission and our work,” said Jalaya Liles Dunn, who assumed the lead role for the program in February. “We know that justice is the heart of what we want for our young people and for society at large. In this moment, with ongoing racial injustice and blatant white supremacy on display, we’re digging in our heels even more to work for justice and support our democracy.”

Explaining the need for the realignment of the program’s title, Dunn cited the challenges Black and Brown students face in classrooms, from the exclusion of history and cultural references from curricula to the lack of funding for programs in schools serving communities of color.

“The fact is, tolerance is not justice,” Dunn said. “It isn’t a sufficient description of the work we do or of the world we want.”

The rebranding also applied to Teaching Tolerance magazine, which is sent free to hundreds of thousands of educators. The fall issue emerged under the Learning for Justice label.

Learning for Justice also launched a cohort training program for educators using LFJ’s Teaching Hard History: American Slavery framework. Teachers learn how to use it to enrich their lessons on American enslavement, build students’ civic engagement and critical thinking and deepen their mindsets around inclusion and empathy.

In another new initiative, the SPLC’s Intelligence Project (IP) in September launched an interactive resource that tracks and exposes the role technology plays in fostering hate and white supremacy. TechWatch can be used by the media, policymakers and law enforcement to hold online extremists accountable for the spread of hate and disinformation.

TechWatch debuted with a four-part report, Inside the Far-Right Podcast Ecosystem, which exposes extremists and groups that used this technology to create, fund and expand their networks of hate. 

The right to vote

Much of the fight to preserve voting rights has focused on Georgia, where the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a sweeping – and unconstitutional – voting law that threatens to massively disenfranchise voters, particularly voters of color, following presidential and U.S. Senate elections that saw record turnout. The SPLC, in partnership with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia, filed suit in federal court to block the new law.

If not rolled back through the courts, the new legislation will disparately discriminate against voters of color, voters with disabilities and other historically disenfranchised communities, and voters with more than one of those identities will face compounded burdens. That fight continues after a federal judge in December denied a motion from the state, county defendants and several Republican Party campaign groups to dismiss the SPLC’s lawsuit and several other similar cases. The lawsuits will continue, with the judge allowing all of the claims in the SPLC’s petition to go forward.

In Florida, a suit filed by the SPLC and the Fair Elections Center challenges a law that, among other things, requires groups engaged in voter registration activities to provide misleading information to voters that the organization “might not” submit the voter’s registration application on time. The law also requires these organizations to direct voters to the state’s online registration portal. 

And with voting rights under attack across the South, the SPLC in December announced a major expansion of its Vote Your Voice initiative, pledging $100 million from its endowment over the next decade to support voter outreach and civic engagement organizations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The SPLC also was active on the national level. Three major SPLC reports from the Voting Rights Practice Group detailing racial discrimination in voting across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were incorporated into the congressional record, providing support for the Freedom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Fighting extremism

The drive to secure equal voting rights is not the only battle the SPLC has fought on the national stage.

The SPLC’s Intelligence Project staff submitted an analysis to congressional committees. A statement on the amplification of domestic extremism on social media platforms from IP Director Susan Corke and Senior Investigative Reporter Michael Edison Hayden was presented to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Cassie Miller, senior research analyst for the IP, had a statement on the recruitment of veterans into domestic violence extremist groups submitted to the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Corke said that IP staff has been active in the search for answers in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“SPLC Intelligence Project subject matter experts are now providing information to congressional investigative committees that have been created for Jan. 6 accountability,” she said. “Specifically, we have worked to provide the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol our research about extremist groups and their financing, and how these groups and far-right individuals participated in planning and carrying out the attack.”

The Intelligence Project also worked with the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University to create a guide for preventing radicalization in young people and, in turn, reducing the spread of white nationalist ideology. According to Corke, a study involving more than 750 parents and caregivers showed that after only seven minutes of reading the guide, more than 80% of the participants reported feeling “definitely” or “probably” prepared to talk with youth about online extremism and to intervene with those they felt were in contact with extremist ideas.

Additionally, SPLC Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks appeared before a House subcommittee in the past year to speak on the financing of domestic terror groups in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. She also testified before the House Armed Services Committee, speaking on the growth of extremism in the military.

People march near the Colorado State Capitol
People march near the Colorado State Capitol in Denver to protest the deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo on April 17, 2021. Wright was shot and killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, during a traffic stop a week before and 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago Police officer on March 29. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Supporting immigrant rights

In keeping with the SPLC’s longtime efforts to protect the rights of immigrants, IP Research Analyst Freddy Cruz and the IP Antigovernment Team tracked, investigated and exposed border patrol agents actively working with far-right militias to detain migrants. Huang, the SPLC’s president and CEO, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and allies on Capitol Hill to provide information and urge DHS to hold extremists and border patrol agents accountable for violating immigrants’ rights.

Meanwhile, the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a division of the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project – expanded its operations from Louisiana’s LaSalle and Pine Prairie immigrant detention facilities to nearly a dozen centers in Louisiana and Mississippi that operate under the jurisdiction of the New Orleans Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office. In coalition with community partners — and after filing a multitude of complaints highlighting human rights abuses at these facilities — SIFI persuaded the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate NOLA ICE broadly. That investigation is underway.

The investigation comes after ICE ceased detaining migrants at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, making Irwin the first SPLC site where authorities heeded calls for closure.

In Florida, SPLC Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) attorneys working in conjunction with Community Justice Project and the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law won a lawsuit against Florida’s anti-sanctuary cities bill. Drafted in coordination with groups affiliated with white supremacists, including SPLC-designated hate groups, the statute prohibited sanctuary policies and required local police to act as agents for ICE. The court found that the law was adopted with a discriminatory intent. The state government has since appealed the ruling. 

In October, DHS issued new standards for supporting enforcement of employment and labor standards, particularly as they relate to immigrant workers. The SPLC and other workers’ rights coalitions had long made calls for DHS to adopt such a policy as a result of raids on meatpacking plants and other facilities targeting immigrant workers. 

“By ending worksite enforcement and protecting immigrant whistleblowers, DHS’ directive was an important step in finally addressing this long pattern of worker exploitation,” said IJP Deputy Legal Director Efren Olivares. “It is important that the labor and immigration agencies craft clear and unequivocal guidelines for how immigrant workers can access these protections. We will continue our demands that the government also ensures victims of past raids have access to these protections and other relief.”

Seeking economic justice

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the SPLC took action to protect farmers of color after passage of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which dedicated $4 billion for farmers of color needing aid.

In a flurry of lawsuits, white farmers alleged that the law discriminated against them and challenged the constitutionality of Section 1005, a key provision of the ARPA that provides debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers who have been subjected to decades of lending and aid discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Without this emergency relief, many farmers of color, particularly Black farmers, will be unable to plant and harvest their crops, and face foreclosure and loss of their family farms.

The SPLC’s Economic Justice Project (EJP) is representing a coalition of more than two dozen farmers’ advocacy organizations. As a result of the challenges to Section 1005, the debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers has been halted as the litigation continues. EJP is continuing to work with allied organizations to develop additional litigation and advocacy strategies to secure the continued viability of farms owned by people of color.

Continuing its work to abolish modern-day debtors’ prisons, EJP in April sent a demand letter to Knox County, Tennessee, officials after spending 2 1/2 years investigating the county’s bail practices. When the investigation began, hundreds of people who had not been convicted of any crime were held every day in an overcrowded jail.

“They were detained solely because they could not afford to purchase their freedom,” said Kirsten Anderson, the EJP deputy legal director.

The letter – written in partnership with Civil Rights Corps – outlines why the county’s bail practices violated the U.S. Constitution and state law. In response to the letter, the county changed its practices, holding more meaningful bail hearings within 48 hours of a person’s arrest and giving those individuals counsel at those hearings.

Unfortunately, not all public officials are so accommodating. In Alabama, EJP obtained a preliminary injunction against a local sheriff for detaining people solely because they could not afford to pay secured money bail. The sheriff appealed that ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a decision is expected in the next few months.

In Mississippi, EJP filed a judicial ethics complaint and settled a lawsuit against a municipal court judge for engaging in similar practices.

“We have negotiated changes to municipal court bail practices without litigation in both states,” Anderson said. “These efforts have collectively resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of fewer people in jail solely because they are indigent and unable to pay for their release from jail.”

Protecting LGBTQ rights

After two years of litigation, Ashley Diamond may finally see her day in court in 2022.  

Diamond, a Black transgender woman and civil rights activist, filed suit against the Georgia Department of Corrections based on the state’s insistence on housing her in a men’s prison and failing to provide protection from sexual victimization and medical care. Diamond was charged with dozens of discipline violations and placed in solitary confinement. Her witnesses were likewise intimidated. Despite a request for protection, the court has yet to have Diamond transferred to a female facility. Instead, she continues to be sexually victimized and punished, including the derailing of her chances for parole or transfer.

Currently, the state has until Feb. 7 to respond to the SPLC’s supplemental brief.

Prison reform

The SPLC’s mission to advance human rights for all people is a constant one that often requires years of vigilance and perseverance. For example, 2021 wrapped up with a 685-page decision in the organization’s legal push — filed in 2014 and first ruled on in 2017 — to force the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to provide “constitutionally adequate mental-health care to prisoners who need it.”

The December 2021 decision in Braggs v. Dunn – a lawsuit filed by the SPLC and its partners alleging that ADOC systemically puts the health and lives of incarcerated people at risk by ignoring their medical and mental health needs and by discriminating against incarcerated people who have disabilities – set a 2025 deadline for the state to fully staff its correctional facilities, bringing the number of employees to more than 3,200 statewide.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson acknowledged some progress since his first ruling in 2017 declaring the mental health care system in Alabama prisons “horrendously inadequate,” but said “(s)erious problems with the provision of mental-health care in ADOC facilities persist in many of the remedial areas,” noting that at least 27 more people have died by suicide since his initial ruling.

Fighting for children

The SPLC’s Children’s Rights team has built a robust campaign across the South to decriminalize Black and Brown children and keep them out of the pipelines that lead to institutionalization and incarceration.

In Louisiana, attorneys won class action status for 47,500 children who are entitled to but do not have access to Medicaid-funded mental health services. In Alabama, the SPLC has filed a class action for youth in foster care with mental health disabilities who are being unjustifiably segregated in psychiatric residential treatment facilities.

“Black children are disproportionately placed in such psychiatric residential treatment facilities,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Children’s Rights Practice Group. “Rather than provide these children with mental health services in their communities, Alabama institutionalizes them, oftentimes for years or until they age out of the foster care system.”

The Children’s Rights group also published Costly and Cruel, a detailed report that exposed the excessive and illegal use of the Florida Mental Health Act, known as the Baker Act, against more than 37,000 children a year, including a disproportionate number of Black children and children with disabilities.

The group also built the PASCO (People Against the Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing) Coalition, joining with more than 100 local, state and national partners to take on the predictive policing program in Pasco County, Florida.

“In 2022, we will keep working to dismantle the practices and systems that derail the lives of targeted youth while we fight for the right for every child to have the freedom to learn and to have access to a free, high-quality, equitably funded, safe, honest and inclusive education,” Jackson said.

‘A new and exciting era’

Brooks, the SPLC’s chief of staff, looked back proudly on the organization’s many achievements over the last year. She eagerly looked forward to more work advancing human rights in the new year.

“As I reflect on the SPLC’s challenges and successes in 2021 – and indeed over our first 50 years – I’m so grateful to our dedicated staff, supporters and community partners for continuing to bend the arc toward justice,” Brooks said.

“2022 marks the beginning of a new and exciting era for SPLC,” she said. “It will be a time of intense action and advocacy as we face down the vestiges of white supremacy that threaten our very democracy. As we begin to implement on our five-year impact goals, we’ll become better community partners by supporting leadership at the community level. Those partnerships will begin to drive litigation, advocacy and education strategies that produce real, sustained change for community members.”

Top picture: Demonstrators march during a Freedom Ride for Voting Rights rally Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images)