When the Southern Poverty Law Center ousted founder Morris Dees on Wednesday, the center’s president, Richard Cohen, was circumspect about the cause.
In a public statement posted on its website and emailed to the media late Thursday, Cohen said Dees, who co-founded the Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights organization that has battled the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups for nearly 50 years, “is no longer working at the SPLC.”
“We are committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen said. “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 offered few other details on Dees’ departure, including what standards Dees may have failed to meet, although in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday, he confirmed Dees had been terminated.
But reports by the Alabama Political Reporter and the Los Angeles Times cited emails and other correspondence that pointed to employee turmoil over allegations of “mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism” inside the SPLC that may have prompted the recent departure of the organization’s associate legal director.
The Times also reported that an internal email announcing Dees’ departure stated that, “although he made unparalleled contributions to our work, no one’s contributions can excuse that person’s inappropriate conduct.”
The Daily Report has spoken to the SPLC seeking comment and copies of the referenced letters but has received no immediate response to its requests.
What has Dees said about his departure?
In an interview Thursday with his hometown newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser, Dees said his departure “was not my decision, what they did … Whatever reasons they had of theirs, I don’t know.”
Dees also told the Advertiser: “I’ve read the statement they [The SPLC] issued. I feel like some of the things in the statement were unfortunate. But I refuse to say anything negative about the center or its employees. I’ll let my life’s work and reputation speak for itself.”
Dees would not comment on whether he was given a chance to resign or retire.
Dees told the Alabama Political Reporter that allegations of sexual harassment were “totally untrue.”
What triggered Dees’ termination?
The Los Angeles Times reported that on Thursday—before Dees’ departure from the SPLC was announced—about two-dozen SPLC staff members sent a letter to management and the SPLC board demanding reforms of the organization’s internal culture and raised concerns about the recent resignation of a black female staff lawyer.
According to the Times, that letter raised “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism” which “threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”
The Times reported that the lawyer’s resignation letter referenced “experiences of staff of color and female staff” as “particularly important” to her, adding 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.”
The Alabama Political Reporter augmented the Times’ report, citing two emails signed by multiple employees accusing Dees of allegedly engaging in multiple instances of sexual harassment while the organization looked the other way.
In one of a series of tweets on Dees’ departure, Alabama Political Reporter columnist and reporter Josh Moon said Dees denied engaging in any inappropriate conduct.
In another tweet on Dees’ departure, Moon said that staff allegations contained in their emails to management “speak more to the history and overall atmosphere within the organization in which women and employees of color aren’t given equal standing and their complaints aren’t taken seriously.”
Dees, according to the Reporter, denied the allegations, adding, “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but that is not right.”
Moon also tweeted that Dees said the decision to remove him “was driven by a difference of opinion on the direction of the SPLC.”
What has SPLC president Richard Cohen said about how the civil rights organization intends to respond to the circumstances that prompted Dees’ departure?
Cohen issued a statement published in the Advertiser and the Times saying that Dees’ termination was one of “a number of immediate, concrete next steps we’re taking,” including the immediate hire of “an outside organization to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices” to ensure the SPLC staff is working in an environment “in which all voices are heard and all staff members are respected.”
The Times also reported that Cohen and the SPLC’s legal and human resources directors circulated the departing lawyer’s email among the staff, saying she “raised important issues of gender and race” that the organization was committed to addressing “in an honest and forthright manner.”
“We’ll be soliciting additional ideas from across the organization on how we can be more diverse, equitable and inclusive,” the managers’ email said. It was signed by Cohen and the organization’s legal director and director of human resources.
Has the Southern Poverty Law Center ever faced discrimination allegations before?
In 1995, the Montgomery Advertiser was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series it published about the Southern Poverty Law Center that explored Dees’ extensive fundraising campaigns. It also alleged that the organization—and Dees himself—actively discriminated against black employees, allegations Dees and the SPLC denied.
Jim Tharpe, who was the Advertiser’s managing editor when the series was published, told a panel at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University in 1999, “There was a problem with black employees” at the SPLC, which the Advertiser learned was at the time “the nation’s richest civil rights organization.”
But despite the SPLC’s reputation as a crusader for civil rights, Tharpe said the Advertiser discovered, “There were no blacks in the top management positions.”
“Twelve out of the 13 black current and former employees we contacted cited racism at the center, which was a shocker to me. As of 1995, the center had hired only two black attorneys in its entire history,” he said.