A Lion In the Fight for Equality Brought Down By Allegations of Sexual Harassment and Discrimination


In 1971, in Montgomery, Alabama, Morris Dees founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, not far from where the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. did some of his most impactful work. The Southern Poverty Law Center, self-described as  “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society”, spent the decades after its creation becoming nothing short of legendary in term of its victories and accomplishments within the arena of civil rights. Such notable accomplishments included winning a victory in the United States Supreme Court for the first-ever successful sex discrimination suit against the federal government, getting the Confederate battle flag removed from the Alabama State Courthouse after a successful suit, and winning a multimillion-dollar judgment against the Ku Klux Klan. Fast forward to March 2019, when a group of Southern Poverty Law Center employees penned a scathing letter to executives at the Southern Poverty Law Center, stating that the Center had devolved into an environment where “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.” Hours after this letter was sent, Morris Dees, the legendary founder and face of the Southern Poverty Law Center, once referred to as a man of “exemplary courage,” was out the door.

To call the Southern Poverty Law Center legendary is not an understatement. The importance of the legal victories accomplished by the Center, both in individual states and nationally, is totally unmatched. But employees at the Center, throughout the years, made numerous complaints as to the toxicity of the culture at the organization, which was allegedly both sexist and racist. Numerous employees who worked at the Center during various time periods alleged that they’d seen Mr. Dees inappropriately touching female employees, heard him make insensitive comments that were both sexual and racist, and were afraid to be alone with him. Moreover, it has surfaced that Mr. Dees was previously investigated internally for a few of these allegations. The Center has claimed that Mr. Dees was disciplined more than once for said allegations, but employees maintain that nothing was ever done about the allegations against Mr. Dees over the years.

Since news of Mr. Dees’ firing broke, numerous articles have been written about the workplace culture at the Southern Poverty Law Center, including a few accounts by former employees. In an article for the New Yorker Magazine, Bob Moser, who was hired to work as a writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center is 2001, wrote that his former colleagues were abuzz, but not surprised, when news of Mr. Dees’ termination broke. In the article, Mr. Moser wrote that he and his former colleagues mused about the circumstances of Mr. Dees’ removal, with a former colleague saying to Mr. Moser—“It (the reason for Dees’ removal) could be racial, sexual, financial—that place was a virtual buffet of injustices. Why would they fire him now?” The thought process of this former Southern Poverty Law Center employee speaks to the odd timing of the removal of Mr. Dees from his position in 2019—over 16 years after Mr. Dees handed over the reins of the organization to Richard Cohen, who has served as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s President since 2003. An investigation by the New York Times also uncovered e-mails sent from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s President, Richard Cohen, to Mr. Dees, in the aftermath of one of reports that were made about Mr. Dees’ behavior. Mr. Dees, with Mr. Cohen writing to Mr. Dees that although “no one had ever alleged that you harassed someone…(but the Center) had no choice but to investigate.”

Since Mr. Dees’ firing, Southern Poverty Law Center employees have been vocal in their demands for a better and more inclusive workplace, with greater transparency. Among their demands has been demanding additional internal investigations into allegations against others at the Center, more training courses, and a very specific request for an ombudsman—a specifically selected, independent person—to help investigate allegations and protect those who complain about treatment at the Center. The Southern Poverty Law Center has recently retained the highly accomplished and celebrated attorney Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, to come in and do a complete analysis of the workplace culture at the Southern Poverty Law Center. It has been reported that the Center boasts a staggering endowment of $471 million. With money clearly an issue, all eyes are on the fabled Southern Poverty Law Center to see what the next steps are that it takes to establish a long-term commitment to making substantive, long-lasting changes for the betterment of its employees and for the saving of its reputation, and to enact justice and fairness within the Center at the same level that they fought for it throughout America.

The Triangle Takeaway

Serious allegations of misconduct require not only an independent, objective investigation, but also require transparency as to the outcome of said investigation. Decades of employees feeling unheard and disrespected will eventually and inevitability be exposed, leaving companies scrambling to clean up their reputation. Triangle Investigations offers independent investigation services, conducted by a group of highly trained and diverse investigators that are uniquely suited to handle sensitive issues involving claims of sexual misconduct, racism, and sexism.

Kia Roberts