Meet editor Mark Potok, sworn enemy of militants, racists, and radical blowbags
The Southern Poverty Law Center is located in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks refused to stand down, where Martin Luther King Jr.’s home was bombed, and where shotgun-wielding snipers took aim at an integrated bus.
Founded as a small law firm focused on fighting racial discrimination, it opened its doors in 1971. Today, the non-profit manages a multimillion-dollar legal budget and publishes Intelligence Report, an award-winning investigative journal that, like its parent organization, advocates tolerance, tracks hate groups, and sends the right-wing intelligentsia—who believe the SPLC long ago lost sight of the First and Second Amendments—into spittle-soaked exclamations of outrage.
In 1983 the Ku Klux Klan firebombed the SPLC’s offices. No one was hurt, but the structure burned to the ground. In the 27 years since, police have arrested some 30 people for various plots to, among other things, blow up the center using an anti-tank missile and, as recently as 2008, assassinate founder Morris Dees. “Maybe this is wishful thinking,” says Mark Potok, editor of Intelligence Report, when I asked him about working in this cultural war zone, “but what all this tells me is that we’re effective, that we are really, really hated by some pretty awful people. So, in a weird way, it makes me feel good.”
That’s Mark Potok distilled. An advocacy journalist with a martini-dry disposition, he moves with the disciplined focus of a detective and never passes on an opportunity to reveal uncomfortable truths about society’s well-armed underbelly. When sworn enemies try to throw a sucker punch, he’s ready—whether it comes in an unsigned piece of hate mail or from a fellow guest on shows such as The O’Reilly Factor and Countdown with Keith Olbermann.
I met Mark in the spring of 2008, when he graciously traveled to Chicago on behalf of Intelligence Report to accept an Utne Independent Press Award for investigative reporting. His passionate acceptance speech, vigilantly steeped in mission, was the evening’s highlight. I have wanted to share his one-of-a-kind quarterly with our readers ever since. After deciding to publish an excerpt from the magazine in this issue (“A Conspiracy of Hate,” p. 52), I gave him a call in Montgomery.
What is the mission of the Southern Poverty Law Center?
Overall, it has to do with the Fourteenth Amendment: seeking justice for the least among us; seeking equality in the treatment of our citizens. More narrowly, the purpose in my department is to both expose and do battle with white supremacist groups and other formations on the radical right.
In what ways has Intelligence Report changed over the years?
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