When Ron Edwards showed up for a trial brought a number of years ago by attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Ku Klux Klan leader had a new tattoo on his head.
The tattoo made clear what the Imperial Wizard thought of his legal tormentors. “F**K S.P.L.C.,” the tattoo read, except without the asterisks.
“You meet all types in our business,” said the SPLC’s president, Richard Cohen, who worked on the case. “It’s a little bit like an anthropological experiment. You’re sitting next to someone who doesn’t think you’re a human being. What do you do?”
Founded in the 1970s to take on racial discrimination via the courts, the SPLC has evolved into the country’s most prominent legal and investigative organization targeting hate groups. After the April 13 Kansas shooting spree that killed three people at Jewish sites, it was the SPLC that first identified the man arrested after the shootings, Frazier Glenn Miller, as a prominent white supremacist.
The SPLC didn’t just know who Miller was. They it knew him personally. The director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project had been in regular phone contact with him a few months earlier. And Miller had encouraged the murder of the SPLC’s founder in the 1980s.
The organization has been out hunting racists so long that it has become intertwined with the murky hate group underground. No one knows neo-Nazis and Klansmen and anti-Muslim bigots better than the SPLC. “The fact is, you sometimes feel like these people are practically our family,” said Mark Potok, the SPLC’s senior fellow. “You get to know a lot about them.”
That includes white supremacist groups like the KKK, black supremacist groups like the Nation of Islam, anti-Muslim groups like the Pamela Geller’s Stop Islamization of America, and all sorts of radical rightists in between.
Such was the case with Miller, founder of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whom the SPLC has been battling since 1985. SPLC attorneys assisted federal prosecutors in a case against Miller in 1986. It was one of Cohen’s first assignments at the organization.
“The court scene was very, very tense,” Cohen said. Miller’s group had 2,000 members at the time, he recalled, many of whom decided to show up for the trial. The KKK group was well armed: It had received stolen military supplies and had been trained by active-duty soldiers. “It was a very, very intimidating atmosphere,” Cohen said.