Morris Dees, the controversial co-founder of The Southern Poverty Law Center, was fired by the organization and the notification was delivered via email. The organization did not specify in a public statement why he was terminated.
The 82-year-old co-founded the Montgomery, Ala., SPLC in 1971 with Joseph J. Levin, Jr., who still has “board emeritus” status. Dees’s bio has been 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.
“You may see in the news today that our founder, Morris Dees, is no longer working at the SPLC,” the statement from SPLC President Richard Cohen started. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.” Cohen also said via the statement: “But our work is about the cause, not the person. We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse — truth, justice, equity, and inclusion.”
In a comment to The New York Times, Dees said he did not know why he had been terminated. “All I can say is it was not my decision,” Dees was quoted by the New York Times. Asked whether he had engaged in any behavior that could have been perceived as improper, he was quoted by The New York Times saying, “I have no idea how people take things.”
The Los Angeles Times is reporting that employees sent a letter to management and the board complaining about Dees. According to the L.A. Times, “A letter signed by about two dozen employees — and sent to management and the board of directors before news broke of Dees’ firing — said they were concerned that internal allegations” of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten” put the organization jeopardy.
The organization was spun out of his 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.
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.