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.
After being found guilty in the trial, Miller skipped bond. While in hiding, he issued a twisted bingo-game-cum-hit-list to his followers: 10 points for killing a Jew; 50 points for killing a judge; 888 points for killing the SPLC’s founder, Morris Dees.
Decades later, after Miller had been caught and set loose again after cutting a deal with prosecutors, Miller talked at length with SPLC Intelligence Project Director Heidi Beirich in a series of phone calls in late 2013.
In the calls, clips of which have been posted on the SPLC’s website, Miller rails while Beirich stubbornly lays bare his bigotry. “Everything that’s killing us was brought about by Jews,” Miller asserted. “Killing us?” Beirich asked, incredulous.
At another point in the interview, Miller accused Beirich of being Jewish. “You are a really ugly human being,” Beirich said, after Miller boasted of beating up black people during his long career as a white supremacist. Miller, taken aback, asked: “You are a white person? You’re not a Jew?”
Miller’s confusion is not uncommon among white supremacists. “They assume that anybody who’s being critical of them must be Jewish,” said Beirich, whose roots are German.
Though the SPLC is not a Jewish group and neither Beirich nor Dees is Jewish, other prominent staff members are. Cohen, who was a trial attorney before joining the SPLC in 1989, grew up Jewish in Richmond, Va. And Potok’s father is a Holocaust survivor.
“It has everything to do with why I’m doing this work,” Potok said.
Potok’s Jewish background is important to the people he covers, too. Once, early in his time at the organization, Potok accepted an invitation to appear on a radio show that he realized, too late, was hosted by white supremacists.
“I’m on this show, and this woman keeps referring to my father, Satan,” Potok said. It took him a moment to understand that the woman was a member of the Christian Identity movement, which literally believes that Jews are the spawn of Satan.
Potok was a journalist before he came to work at the SPLC in 1997. He had been working for USA Today, covering the militia movement and the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. At the time, the SPLC’s investigative arm was called Klanwatch and was dedicated mostly to tracking KKK groups. That changed soon after Potok arrived. He teamed with Beirich, who has a doctorate in political science and an expertise in the European ultra-right. The two refashioned the group’s investigative arm into a journalistic-style enterprise that applies the techniques of investigative journalism to the work of taking down racists.
That meant that they actually had to start calling the people they were writing about. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with people like [former KKK leader, Dominica overthrow plotter and Stormfront founder] Don Black and [Frazier] Glenn Miller,” Beirich said. “We felt like we should let them respond to our journalism.”
One result of this approach is that the hate groups that Beirich and Potok cover pay close attention to their work.
“We’ve become, in a bizarre sort of way, the New York Times of the radical right,” Potok said. “I think people on the radical right read our materials assiduously. I think they are the most careful readers of our materials anywhere.”
Radical right-wing websites and forums are full of intramural squabbling and slanders of rivals within the movement, Potok said. The SPLC’s stories are trusted, if not admired. “We write essentially from an anti-racist perspective, but we also write accurately about them,” Potok said. “We’re writing about their friends and colleagues and leaders, but writing accurately.”
In 2002, after the unexpected death of William Pierce, leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, the SPLC published comments by Pierce characterizing the members of other neo-Nazi groups as “freaks and weaklings.” That story proved damaging to the group’s reputation on the radical right, and may have played some part in its failure to recover from Pierce’s death. (Cohen deposed Pierce once before he died. “He would have pushed me in the oven in an instant,” Cohen said. “In an instant. He so much as said so.”)
The familiarity between the radical right and the SPLC’s investigators also shows up in the way the investigators are discussed on radical right-wing websites. “The fact of the matter is that we’re on a first-name basis,” Beirich said. “They just refer to us by our first names.”
Not that this familiarity carries with it any warm feelings. SPLC employees take extensive security precautions. The group’s offices are in Montgomery, Ala., and are guarded heavily. Their former offices were burned down one night in 1983. A number of people are in jail for plotting to kill Dees. Threats continue to come in regularly. One white supremacist novel depicted a character obviously based on Potok being graphically assassinated, though another character based on Beirich lived to the end of the novel.
The SPLC’s methods have come in for criticism, and not only from the organizations they attack. A March 2013 article in the magazine Foreign Policy criticized the organization for massively inflating its estimate of hate groups in America by “65 or 70 percent.” According to the article’s author, J.M. Berger, the center does so in part by counting individually the numerous local chapters of national and regional groups.
Beirich, in the FP story, defended her group’s methodology. “I think it would be much more misleading to say here’s 10 or 15 groups than to point out, the way we do, the way those groups are functioning,” Beirich told FP. “We want to show the geographic reach of those groups.”
Conservative publications, meanwhile, have long accused the group of allowing its left-wing slant to blind it to left-wing extremism. In response, the group has said its work focuses on organizations and individuals that promote hatred of groups or individuals based on their race, ethnicity or religion — a defense some conservatives don’t buy.
Potok and Beirich’s work makes up only a part of the SPLC’s total operations. The group has a budget of $38 million and 250 employees, and maintains large legal and educational arms. Its lawyers, led by Dees and Cohen, have pursued dozens of major cases, defending LGBT clients and prisoners and victims of hate crimes, among many others.
The SPLC’s anti-racist activities are often compared with those of the Anti-Defamation League, which would not comment for this story. Though both groups have investigative divisions, the ADL does not go after hate groups in court in the same way that the SPLC does.
“The SPLC is a diverse organization,” Cohen said. “The thing that holds us together is a commitment to the principles underlying the 14th Amendment — equal justice, fairness. Our work that goes after the white supremacists, those are the people in our country who are the most ardent opponents of our democratic values.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.