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?
When the magazine started in 1981, it was simply a news-letter to alert police officers, especially around the South, that in many cases they had Klan groups operating in their backyard, and often without any knowledge of them. Back then it tended to not be analytic. It really didn’t say much about the groups, or the nature of the groups, other than that they were racist. It’s quite a different journal now. We write trend stories and examine motivations: Why do people get into this movement? How do they get out? How is democratic discourse in the country generally affected? How do these outfits raise money? How do they survive?
The idea is not only to destroy these groups, but also to combat their influence within the mainstream. Because at the end of the day, when you have neo-Nazis calling for death of the Jews, there are not that many people who are likely to join the group. That’s the kind of phenomenon that happens at the fringe of the fringe of our society. But when ideas are popping out of these groups and making their way into the mouths of people who have a real pulpit from which to speak to hundreds of thousands, millions of people, that’s a problem.
From my own point of view, Lou Dobbs has done much more to damage democratic discourse in this society than, say, the Aryan Nations.
What are the connections between the fringe groups exposed on the pages of Intelligence Report, mainstream political rhetoric, and your overall mission?
Our coverage of extremist groups is the foundation. That’s what makes it possible to do the rest.
For example, there is this idea out there that Mexico has been secretly planning to reconquer the American Southwest—the so-called Plan de Aztlán or the Reconquista. As it turns out, this idea very largely originated in a little white supremacist hate group based in California, called American Patrol.
It would have come to nothing, but we’ve had this very large anti-immigration movement spring up, and the Aztlán conspiracy theory jumped out into the much larger milieu of the Minuteman groups, some 350 of them right now. After that, it was just a matter of time before this nonsense was presented as fact on Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN.
We’ve seen an enormous amount of that in the past five or six years—misinformation entering the mainstream. It’s been quite something.
What do you think has led to the mainstreaming of this sort of hateful rhetoric?
It reminds me of the turn of the 19th century, when essentially you saw this huge move toward industrialization, toward women entering the political arena, and the move of Americans off the land. Around that time, a huge number of millennial movements said that Armageddon was around the corner. This was all a way of trying to cope with the world changing around people faster than they knew how to deal with it. I think that’s happening now. It’s a tough world out there.
How would you describe this moment in history through the lens of race?
I never believed that in my lifetime we would see a black man elected president of the United States. I think that’s quite astounding, and it’s worth remembering we are a country that went through 250 years of slavery, a century of Jim Crow, and then 40 years later millions of white Americans were willing to vote for a black man.
That said, I think what’s really going on right now is we’re living through a backlash. It started right before the election with the shouts of “Kill him!” and “Terrorist!” at Palin rallies and then continued to four or five weeks after the election, when we saw this remarkable backlash from very much mainstream Americans. And this was before President Obama had time to do anything that could arguably instigate rage on the part of the citizenry.
In that first four weeks, you probably remember, effigies were burned, Obama supporters were being beat up, all sorts of things like that. For me, it was all captured in the amazing case of the second and third graders in Idaho who were riding their bus on the way to school and chanting, “Assassinate Obama!” It was an incredible moment. I think that—very much like David Duke, the ex-Klan leader, predicted—Americans woke up on November 5 and to some of them it was a rude shock. This black guy was going to be their president, and, by God, he was going to take his wife and kids and move into the White House.
It makes me think of Jimmy Carter’s analysis of opposition to Obama being in part motivated by race, and how much ridicule that comment kicked up among the pundits.
I think Carter was saying, and it’s true, that behind all this is the specter of race. That there’s been a significant demographic change in this country that has driven anger and feelings of alienation. I mean, I don’t think anybody with two brain cells to rub together could still have fairy-tale dreams about living in a post-racial America. Electing a guy with skin of a certain darkness—surprise, surprise—did not cure the past 400 years of our history. Things just don’t happen in that way.
For a full transcription of David Schimke’s conversation with Mark Potok, visit www.utne.com/IntelligenceReport.