A brief history of the SPLC

 The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1971, by local attorney Morris Dees and his partner, Joe Levin.

Although the organization had no mandate, its stated goal of bringing justice to poor southerners through strategic law suits was laudable.

Morris Dees was born in Alabama in 1936. As a student at the University of Alabama in the late 1950s, Dees and a classmate, Millard Fuller, started a highly successful small business, delivering birthday cakes to fellow students at the university.[1]

 The cake business grew, generating nearly half a million dollars, according to Dees, and was his introduction to the lucrative field of direct mail marketing. After graduating from law school, Dees and Fuller moved to Montgomery, where they opened a small law office.

At the same time, the two men also created one of the most successful mail order companies in the country, which would soon make them both millionaires. Business was so good that Dees and Fuller opted to close the law office and concentrate solely on mail order.

 By 1968, Millard Fuller sold his half of the business to Dees, gave away much of his money as part of a spiritual reevaluation of his life, and would later go on to found Habitat for Humanity.

In 1969, Dees sold his mail order company for $6 million dollars.

In 1971, Dees was contacted by Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, because of his expertise in the field of direct mail marketing. Dees agreed to help McGovern with his campaign fund raising in exchange for McGovern’s 700,000 member mailing list.

Armed with McGovern’s mailing list, Dees, with his new partner, Joe Levin, decided to open the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Alabama.

The SPLC is therefore a private venture, with no mandate. It was created entirely at the whim of Morris Dees and Joe Levin. The importance of this single fact cannot be overstated as it is the basis for all subsequent actions by the SPLC.


[1] A Season for Justice: The life and times of civil rights lawyer Morris Dees,” 1991,  (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.), p. 79

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