SPLC — Another “Honorary” President?

In the aftermath of the recent scandals that rocked the Southern Poverty Law Center this past March, in which SPLC founder Morris Dees was fired after decades of alleged sexual misconduct and long-time president Richard Cohen quit (or jumped ship) after taking full responsibility for ignoring Dees’ alleged conduct for all those years and also for perpetuating a corporate culture in which minorities were never promoted to senior positions, it became clear that some serious public relations work was required before the donors started asking questions and expressing doubts.

Enter SPLC “Interim President” Karen Baynes-Dunning.

Baynes-Dunning

Karen Baynes-Dunning

For the PR-savvy fundraisers at the SPLC, Ms. Baynes-Dunning represents the perfect stopgap measure. According to her company bio, Ms. Baynes-Dunning is a lawyer, a former juvenile court judge, and has 25 year’s worth of high-level experience in the non-profit sector.

Most importantly, Ms. Baynes-Dunning is not an old white male. She serves, from a public relations standpoint, as the ultimate “Anti-Dees.” She combines the best qualifications of her two predecessors without the negatives: Richard Cohen, who is a lawyer, but white, and genuine Civil Rights icon, the late Julian Bond, who was black, but not a lawyer.

While Julian Bond was a figurehead president, as we shall explore shortly, President Cohen was the real brains behind the SPLC for years and genuinely does bear full responsibility for the company’s policies. After Morris Dees was unceremoniously ejected from the company he created, several current and former staffers publicly stated that Dees’ alleged inappropriate behavior was a well-known in-house secret, including a March 21, 2019 article in the New Yorker by staff writer Bob Moser.

Richard Cohen and the SPLC Board of Directors had to be aware of these claims, but did nothing for decades.

In 1979, Dees’ second wife, Maureene Buck Dees, who was seeking a divorce from Dees, filed court papers that accused him of various sexual infidelities and what many would consider “peculiarities” unfit for publication here. Maureene Dees also accused Morris of slipping into her 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom one night to present the girl with a vibrator.

(A somewhat choppy mechanical transcript of the document can be found on the Internet Archive site here, though several more legible iterations can be found online at websites of varying credibility. The content of the texts are identical)

Again, Cohen and the Board had to be aware of these allegations, but did nothing. The fact that Mr. Dees recently divorced his fifth wife might have suggested that the man has “issues” when dealing with women.

Cohen and the Board turned a blind eye because Dees, who told the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper that he hadn’t tried a case in over a decade and had not participated in the day-to-day running of the SPLC for years, was a fundraising superstar.

Richard Cohen kept Dees on the payroll at his full $350,000 salary for years for doing little more than making the occasional phone call to big donors. The Board of Directors approved. And the whole time, the SPLC, with hundreds of millions of donor-dollars in the bank, continued to send out dire fundraising letters like clockwork.

It seems far more likely that Karen Baynes-Dunning  who had only been serving on the company’s Board of Directors for about a year before being promoted to “interim president,” is destined to  serve as a mere token, in the mold of the SPLC’s first president, Julian Bond.

After opening the SPLC in 1971, millionaire mail-order magnate Morris Dees realized that raising money for the company was his first priority. Dees wrote in his 1991 autobiography:

“Before we could ask for money, we had to establish credibility. We needed a prominent figure whose presence would announce the center’s values and promise. Julian Bond seemed the perfect choice.

When I told [Bond] about our hopes and plans, he agreed to serve as president of the Law Center, a largely honorary position” (Dees, A Season for Justice, p. 132).

“Honorary” President Bond spent his entire administration in his hometown of Atlanta, a good three-hour drive from SPLC headquarters in Montgomery. Internal documents held in the Julian Bond Papers archive at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, show that Bond’s primary presidential function was to sign fundraising letters crafted by Dees in Bond’s name.

IMG_0643

“And two letters, drafted in your name…”

In return, the “president” of the company received a monthly “fee” of $1,000, as opposed to an actual salary. President Bond had no more to do with the running of the SPLC than Michael Jordan had with the running of Haynes. They were both simply spokesmodels for the brands.

Bond Fee

“Your fee for September, 1971 is enclosed.”

Karen Baynes-Dunning serves much the same function. As a black woman, she can act to deflect some of the heat of the recent scandals while giving lie to the serious charges that the revered civil rights institution doesn’t promote people of color.

We at Watching the Watchdogs have reported on this most incongruous charge and have posted photo galleries of the SPLC’s all-white Executive Suite every year for nearly a decade, which include transcripts of the 1994 week-long exposé of Dees and the SPLC in the Montgomery Advertiser that originally broke the news of “No blacks in Center’s leadership.”

Ironically, or perhaps “strategically” is a better term, Interim President Baynes-Dunning’s first official article for the SPLC deals with some of the same damning charges currently leveled at the company, racism and misogyny. In this instance, though, Baynes-Dunning turned her righteous anger toward the US Treasury Department’s recent decision to to delay the release of a new $20 bill featuring an image of famed abolitionist, Harriet Tubman.

The choice of topics could not have been safer and its (unverifiable) claim that the decision by the Trump Administration “clearly seems to be undergirded by racism and misogyny” is guaranteed to agitate the almighty donor base.

Any comment including the Bogie-Man-in-Chief, even blatant speculation, is guaranteed to bring in the donor-dollars, and that is the primary function of all SPLC presidents, “honorary” and otherwise.

These policies are the result of the bigotry and hate toward women and people of color that has seeped into mainstream thinking and policy development.”

Well, if anyone should know about policies that result in bigotry toward women and people of color, it would have to be the SPLC. They have an unbroken track record of 47 years behind them of doing just that.

The odds are very strong that this press release was written by a company PR hack under Baynes-Dunning’s name. It includes several safe, boilerplate fundraising tropes, such as “For nearly 50 years, the SPLC has been working tirelessly to develop “underground railroads” for children, youth, families, and communities…

The original release of the article also included a saccharine “reach for the stars” quote at the end, allegedly attributed to Harriet Tubman, which was obviously anachronistic to anyone speaking from the 19th century. Tubman biographer, Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, has traced the origins of the smarmy quote back to 2007, nearly a century after Tubman’s death.

The bogus quote has since been trimmed from the article currently residing on the SPLC website.

Baynes-Dunning’s company bio also indicates that she is the president of Baynes-Dunning Consulting, LLC, of Greenville, SC, and, in the age of instant Internet communication, has even less need to set foot in Alabama than Julian Bond did.

Additionally, the Montgomery Advertiser articles (linked above) exposed the SPLC’s Board of Directors, on which Baynes-Dunning had served only for a year, following the death of board member emeritus, Julian Bond,  as a rubber-stamp, populated with Morris Dees’ cronies. One of them, Dees’ divorce lawyer, Howard Mandell, who was mentioned in the 1994 exposé, is still on the board today.

In February, 1972, Julian Bond admitted in a letter to North Carolina politician Martha Clampitt McKay that It’s no consolation, I’m sure, but it’s not a real Board, in that it has no decision making ability, and is purely advisory.

IMG_0653

“…it’s not a real Board…”

The Montgomery Advertiser exposé came to the same conclusion 22 years later.

Considering the Board turned a blind eye to Dees’ alleged sexual harassment activities for decades, it’s unlikely that an “interim president” plucked from their ranks will become a permanent fixture around company headquarters.

If so, if the most junior member of the Board possesses all of the attributes needed to run a half-billion-dollar corporation, in the manner of a Richard Cohen, why bother with the “interim” status? Why not appoint Karen Baynes-Dunning to the presidency of the SPLC and be done with it?

More likely, Ms. Baynes-Dunning’s temporary status is more of a sign of a second “honorary” president, to keep the seat filled until the heat blows over and a new, more experienced president can be selected.

Last November, we put forth a proposition that Messrs. Dees and Cohen had accomplished their missions and should step down “at the top of their game” and pass the torch to a new generation, one that more resembled the people the SPLC purports to help. We suggested the new president of the SPLC should be long-time company director, Lecia Brooks.

Lecia Brooks, who is black and a lesbian, had been with the company for 15 years and was the only SPLC staffer to hold TWO concurrent directorships, for more than a decade, though she had NEVER been listed among the company’s highest paid executives.

Since the SPLC presidency is more about fundraising than law, (the lack of a JD was no impediment to the Bond Administration), Brooks, who had been SPLC Outreach Director for a decade was a perfect choice. She was certainly well known to the Almighty Donors.

About a week before the defenestration of Morris Dees in March, Lecia Brooks disappeared from the SPLC website and was all but airbrushed from the archives. She later turned up at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), also of Montgomery. No explanation of her departure was given, and no word of thanks for her years of service.

Last week we noticed that our Ms. Brooks had quietly returned to the SPLC, probably in April, in the new role of “Chief Workplace Transformation Officer,” which was no doubt created in response to the Dees/Cohen debacle.

At that time, we surmised that the role of a “transformation officer” certainly implies a sense of a definite transformational beginning and ending. Either the SPLC reforms its discriminatory and predatory practices or it does not. It sure sounds “interim” to us. Surely someone of Ms. Brooks’ experience would not give up a new job at the EJI to return to the fold for a temporary gig.

On June 4, 2019, (yesterday, as of this writing), Lecia Brooks gave testimony before the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which seems a bit odd for a “Workplace Transformation Officer” but exactly mirrors the kind of spurious “testimony’ President Richard Cohen has been giving Congress for years.

The “testimony” includes all of the standard SPLC propaganda claims about “hate groups” and “Alt-Right extremists,” and could have been written for Cohen months ago and simply updated for Brooks. We have been debunking those claims for nearly a decade now, and we once again warn of the dangers of this kind of unvetted fundraising propaganda entering the Congressional Record as “fact.” The claims do not hold up to even the most rudimentary examination.

While we are not in the prediction business, it sure looks like Lecia Brooks is being groomed for the post of president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. She checks off a lot of boxes, public relations-wise, is a “name” familiar to the donors, in the mold of Julian Bond, and most importantly, she can be relied upon to do what is asked of her.

You heard it here first, folks.

 

 

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