Tim Pierce [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

March 14, 2019; Montgomery Advertiser

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has fired its founder and chief trial counsel, Morris Dees. No specific reasons were given, but the SPLC has released a statement about its commitment to a just and inclusive workplace culture that raises some questions.

SPLC president Richard Cohen wrote,

You may see in the news today that our founder, Morris Dees, is no longer working at the SPLC. Morris has made incredible contributions to the fight against racial injustice in our country.

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. 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.

Today, we have a wonderful staff, some 350 people in offices spanning five Southern states who are all dedicated to fighting every day for justice and equality. Right now, our work couldn’t be more critical. The SPLC is in good hands for many years to come.

The SPLC fights against hate groups and against discriminatory actions against marginalized people; they made a name for themselves pursuing damage litigation against the Ku Klux Klan. Cohen also said,

Today we announced a number of immediate, concrete next steps we’re taking, including bringing in an outside organization to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices, to ensure that our talented staff is working in the environment that they deserve—one in which all voices are heard and all staff members are respected.

Dees told the Modesto Bee, “I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is a very fine group and I devoted nearly 50 years of my life to it and I’m proud of its work….About being fired, all I can say is it wasn’t my decision and I wish the center the best.”

Melissa Brown and Brian Edwards of the Montgomery Advertiser, the main paper of the SPLC’s hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, mentioned the 1994 series run by the Advertiser looking into “[Dees’] near-singular control over the organization and its mammoth budget.” The series was nominated for a Pulitzer, but Dees asked friends to lobby the Pulitzer board and the Advertiser did not win, according to a Nieman Lab transcript.

Speculation will likely abound as to what exactly prompted the SPLC to show Dees the door. Kim Chandler at the Modesto Bee reported that Dees currently occupied a sort of emeritus role, in which he didn’t try cases and had less say over day-to-day management. Ratings on Glassdoor.com, a site for employees to rate their workplace experience, say that only about half of employees would recommend working there; several called for the organization to “clean house” on upper management. This situation has some similarities to that of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in that workplace culture is cited as a concern along with a divergence between the stated mission and that internal culture.

The SPLC had already scrubbed Dees’ bio from their site by Thursday evening.—Erin Rubin