Southern Poverty Law Center

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civil Rights
Social Justice
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit organization committed to eradicating hate and fighting the effects of poverty with innovative lawsuits and education programs. It was incorporated in Montgomery, Alabama in 1971, by lawyers Joseph Levin and Morris Dees. The men felt key legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should be practiced and enforced by the courts. Their legal victories have resulted in landmark decisions (such as integrating law enforcement departments, and causing financial burdens that force hate groups to disband). The organization's Intelligence Report monitors hate groups and informs the public about them.



The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) originally began as a small civil rights firm addressing the needs of minorities.  Since its inception the SPLC has grown exponentially in its reach and reputation.  The SPLC has offices in Montgomery, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; Miami, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Jackson ,Mississippi.  The SPLC currently employs over 250 staff.  The current president is Richard Cohen.  Their mission is to ensure the tenets of the Civil Rights Movement become a reality for all people living in the United States.  The SPLC operates as a human rights watchdog, advocacy group, educational resource and legal ally for fighting hate and bigotry, while also pursuing justice for the most vulnerable members of our society (About Us n.d.).


Historic Roots  

The SPLC was established in 1971 by two prominent Civil Rights attorneys, Morris Dees and Joseph Levin, Jr.

In 1970, SPLC co-founder Morris Dees, filed a case against the Montgomery, Alabama YMCA after two black children were turned away from summer camp.  The federal court ruled in favor of the children and the YMCA was forced to end its policy of racial discrimination.  This was a landmark case at the time and fueled the beginning of the SPLC.  It was just one year later that Morris Dees and Joe Levin, Jr. formally formed the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. Since then, countless cases have been filed and won by attorneys with the SPLC in areas from the underrepresentation of black men and women in the Alabama legislature, to sex discrimination (Our History n.d.).  

The SPLC uses social media to disseminate information to the public.   Since the 2016 Presidential election, the SPLC says it has more than doubled its following on Twitter and jumped from 650,000 Facebook followers to more than one million (Hatewatch Headlines 2016). The SPLC has an active Facebook page with daily posts that reflect their mission by informing its followers of various current events and historical documentaries, biographies and articles.  

The SPLC is widely known for crippling the economic power of the Klu Klux Klan.  In March of 1981, Michael Donald was hunted down, killed and hung by members of the United Klans of America, known as the Klu Klux Klan’s most violent.  The group of men that carried out this brutal murder were angry because a verdict had not been reached in an earlier case against a black man who allegedly killed a white police officer in Birmingham.  Michael Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald joined forces with Morris Dees to win the case against not only the men who committed the murder but against the organization itself by proving “theory of agency” against the United Klan of America (Kornbluth 1987).  The case awarded Ms. Donald seven million dollars.



The SPLC has three main purposes – combating bigotry, promoting tolerance, and seeking justice through the American court systems.  

The SPLC is also a watchdog organization assigned to the task of discerning and tracking active hate groups across the United States.  The SPLC fights bigotry and hate through an initiative called The Intelligence Project – seeking to expose the work of hate groups and domestic terrorists (About Us n.d.).  The SPLC defines a hate group as “an organization that—based on its official statements of principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities—has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristic”  (About n.d.). The SPLC exposes organizations that fit this description and compiles a hate group list along with a map showing locations where the groups operate.  The list is published annually in January or February.  

The SPLC’s second focus is promoting tolerance.  Teaching Tolerance is an educational resource for teachers which also includes a free quarterly magazine that is provided at no cost.  

The SPLC states, “Our mission is to reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations, and support equitable school experiences for our nation’s children. We believe that schools must educate all students for full participation in a diverse democracy” (About n.d.).  In 2011, Teaching Tolerance released a report called The Teaching Tolerance Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011.  The findings from this report stated that most states fail at accurately teaching students about the Civil Rights Movement (Tolerance).  According to Maureen Costello, SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance Director, “When 43 states adopted the Common Core Standards in English and Math, they affirmed rigorous standards were necessary for achievement.  By having weak or non-existent standards for history, particularly for the civil rights movement, they are saying loud and clear that it isn’t something students need to learn” (About n.d.).  The report calls for conversation around the importance of civil rights education in K-12 history and social studies classes.  The website provides lesson plans plus print, film, and digital resources.

Since the SPLC is a law firm, their third primary focus is on the American judiciary branch to achieve social justice through the American legal system.  SPLC has fought for equality, fair treatment, and worked on human rights issues for women, disabled persons, minority groups, and members of the lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, and transgender (LBGT) community.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Advocacy groups are on the rise in the United States and serve an important role in the philanthropic sector.  The SPLC does not receive government funding. The SPLC is funded by private donors and an endowment.  

Giving to groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center offers donors the peace of mind that their contribution (partnership) supports the activities expressed by the organization's mission rather than an individual’s personal or political agenda.  Organizations like The SPLC have a system of checks and balances in place that ensure that donors understand the effects of their support.    

The SPLC seeks to encourage equality among all members of society.  Philanthropic contributions include free or reduced legal fees, free educational resources to promote social change, the tracking of hate and domestic terrorist organizations, and educational grants to teachers and schools. also gives out grants to educators who embody the ideals of anti-bias culture in the classroom and school.  These grants range from five-hundred dollars to ten-thousand dollars. grants currently fund three different types of projects: school-level, classroom-level, and district-level. At the school and district levels, leadership teams use the grants to improve school climate, reduce hate, support culturally responsive practices, and implement anti-bias curricula (Grants n.d.). At the classroom level, teachers use the grants to fund programming that promotes empathy and kindness, positive identity development, perspective taking, critical thinking about injustice, and collective action (Grants n.d.).

Important People

  • Julian Bond (January 14, 1940 – August 15, 2015) was an American social justice activist, writer, professor, and leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  He was the first president of the SPLC.  Bond would also later become chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a position he held from 1998-2010.
  • Morris Dees (December 16, 1936 - Current).   Current co-founder of the SPLC, he is a civil rights and social justice activist and attorney.  Dees and his colleagues at the SPLC have been “credited with devising innovative ways to cripple hate groups” such as the Klu Klux Klan.
  • Alicia Garza (January 4, 1981 – Current).  Writer, activist, and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.  After the death of Trayvon Martin, Garza felt compelled to write a letter to the public lamenting the tragic death of Martin.  Her letter encouraged readers to come together to ensure that “black lives matter” (Guynn, 2016). The phrase quickly went viral and the movement was born.  Garza currently works as a writer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (Guynn 2016).
  • Shaun King (September 17, 1979 – Current). King maintains a large social media presence as a social justice journalist with over 1.5 million followers.  He is self -described on his Facebook page as a journalist, activist, and organizer.  His articles and voice promote discussion and civic action.

Key Related Ideas

  • Advocacy—public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy
  • Hate crime—a crime motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, typically one involving violence.
  • Hate groups---a social group that advocates and practices hatred, hostility, or violence towards members of a race, ethnicity, nation, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other designated sector of society.
  • Tolerance—the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
  • Social Justice—appropriate distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privilege


Related Nonprofit Organizations   

  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) works to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States through their work in the courts and legislature.  They work to preserve the rights and liberties given to all people in this country.  It was founded in 1920 (
  • Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a chapter-base, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and leadership, and to also intervene in violence inflicted on black individuals and communities by the state or people motivated by racial bias to commit crimes against black people.  BLM also advocates for the black LGBT community (  
  • Hip Hop Congress has over 3,000 followers on social media, embraces the Hip Hop culture to inspire young people to get involved in civic action, social service, and cultural expression by bringing together students, artists, and the community (
  • Black Youth Project has over 65,000 followers on social media, and the mission of this project is to examine the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth.  The project explores the way young African Americans are influenced, how they make decisions, and how the current culture affects their behavior and thoughts surrounding politics, sex, and health.  It is a place where youth can learn and have a voice in society (

Reflection Questions - If you were alive in the Civil Rights era, would you have engaged in promoting equality?   How so, or why not?  What ways can youth contribute today to social justice issues?  



  • About. (n.d.).
  • About Us. (2017).
  • Grants. (n.d.).
  • Guynn, J. (Mar. 4, 2015). Meet the Woman who Coined #BlackLivesMatter. USA Today.
  • Hatewatch Headlines. (2016).
  • Kornbluth, J. (Nov. 1, 1987). The Woman Who Beat the Klan. New York Times.
  • Our History. (n.d.).

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.