Three top officials of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) are now out in what is being characterized as a situation of workplace harassment, hostile workplace complaints and a lack of staff diversity.
SPLC Co-Founder Morris Dees was fired. SPLC President Richard Cohen announced his resignation. Rhonda Brownstein, the organization’s legal director, also resigned although the reason for her departure is not yet clear.
Cohen joined the SPLC in 1986 and has been president since 2003. Dees co-founded the organization in 1971 with Joseph J. Levin, Jr., who still has “board emeritus” status. Dees’s bio was scrubbed from the SPLC website. He had ratchetted down his involvement with the organization in recent years. In the only public statement from the organization, it was implied that the termination had to do with workplace conduct.
Tina Tchen, former White House chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, was hired to review the organization’s workplace policies. In a statement released by the SPLC, Tchen was quoted saying: “Every workplace, including social justice organizations, must work hard to create a workplace culture that fully reflects their values and priorities, including when it comes to racial and gender diversity.”
Cohen sent an email to staff announcing he was leaving. “After more than 30 years at the Southern Poverty Law Center, I’ve decided to step down,” Cohen said via the statement. “Other legacy civil rights organizations have transitioned to a new generation of leaders, and I believe that we should, too.”
The statement continued: “We’ve heard from our staff that we need to do a better job of making sure that our workplace embodies the values we espouse — truth, justice, equity, and inclusion.”
Cohens late Friday sent an email to staff with the subject time “Stepping Down.” In the email, Cohen wrote that he had asked the board back in October to begin seeking his successor. “… in light of recent events, I’ve asked the board to immediately launch a search for an interim president in order to give the organization the best chance to heal,” he wrote to the staff.
The SPLC has been engulfed in controversy for decades, on everything from its fundraising practices to its designation of certain organizations as hate groups over which there has been litigation. Most recently there have been resignations by senior staff, including a top attorney, Meredith Horton, who is African-American.
Horton reportedly wrote in a farewell email that “there is more work to do in the legal department and across the organization to ensure that SPLC is a place where everyone is heard and respected and where the values we are committed to pursuing externally are also being practiced internally.”
Employees then signed a letter to management and to the board regarding “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”
The SPLC was spun out of Dees’s legal practice, started with Levin and civil rights leader Julian Bond. The first big win came in 1981 when a jury awarded $7 million in a case against United Klans of America. King Center in Atlanta awarded highest honor in 2016, Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize. Read the statement on the firing of Dees here.
The SPLC’s most recent federal Form 990, for 2017 and filed in October 2018, showed that Dees earned more than Cohen. Listed as the “chief trial counsel,” the Form 990 shows he was paid $375, 181 with other compensation of $41,767. Cohen was paid $364,799 with other compensation of $42,742.
The organization, known in nonprofit circles as a fundraising powerhouse, had total revenue of $121,975,162 on contributions of $111,176,287. The Form 990 also showed investments totaling $471,046,609.