Montgomery Advertiser Series
Equal Treatment? No Blacks in Center’s Leadership
Dan Morse, Advertiser Staff Writer
February 16, 1994
Outside the Southern Poverty Law Center, a stunning civil rights memorial honors those who died to give blacks more opportunities.
Inside, no blacks have held top management positions in the center’s 23-year history, and some former employees say blacks are treated like second-class citizens.
“I would definitely say there was not a single black employee with whom I spoke who was happy to be working there,” said Christine Lee, a black graduate of Harvard Law School who interned at the Law Center in 1989.
Only one black has ever been among the top five wage-earners at the center, and he was one of only two black staff attorneys in the center’s history. Both said they left unhappy.
The Law Center’s ambitious new project, Teaching Tolerance, which is designed to promote racial and cultural justice throughout America’s schools, is produced by an eight-member all-white staff according to the Law Center.
Of 13 black former center staffers contacted, 12 said they either experienced or observed racial problems inside the Law Center. Three said they heard racial slurs, three likened the center to a plantation and two said they had been treated better at predominantly white corporate law firms. Three said the treatment was no worse than other places they have worked.
According to internal memorandums, staffers have accused Morris Dees, the center’s driving force, of being a racist and black employees have “felt threatened and banded together.”
Charles Ogletree, a black Harvard Law School professor who knows blacks who’ve had negative experiences at the center, said he no longer recommends his students take internships there.
Donald Jackson, a black graduate of the University of Virginia Law School who interned at the Law Center in 1987 and is now an attorney in Montgomery, said, “I think there’s a real question as to the sincerity and legitimacy of the organization because of the noticeable absence of blacks there. You know, it’s sort of like the pot calling the kettle black.”
Mr. Dees, a white millionaire who co-founded the Law Center in 1971, denies the claims of the former staffers.
“We try to practice what we preach, so to speak,” Mr. Dees said.
When asked about the plantation comparisons, Mr. Dees said, “There ain’t no plantation mentality. If that was the case, I don’t know what blacks would be doing in the positions they are…”
Two of the six members of the board of directors are black.
Out of eight current department heads, only one, Mamie Jackson, is black. Ms. Jackson is the mail operations director.
“I have been happily working at the center for 20-plus years,” Ms. Jackson said in a written statement. “The relationship has been positive, not one of inferiority. I am unaware of separate treatment of any employee because of race.”
Ms. Jackson declined a request for an interview.
Edward Ashworth, the center’s executive director, said in a letter to the Montgomery Advertiser that he had “polled present black employees, and they do not feel they are treated paternalistically at the center.”
When asked about racial slurs, Mr. Ashworth responded, in writing: “We do not recall and instances of anyone at the Center — management or otherwise — doing something as crude as making racial slurs… such conduct would be out of character for persons who have worked hard to fight racism and promote tolerance.”
Improving Life for Blacks
Mr. Dees has improved conditions for blacks, particularly in Alabama.
Before he co-founded the Law Center in 1971, he sued to integrate the Alabama legislature, the Montgomery YMCA and the society pages of the Advertiser.
With the Law Center, his law suits led to the integration of the Alabama state troopers, the juries of Montgomery County and the governing bodies of Montgomery and other counties. In 1988, the Law Center filed a lawsuit aimed at placing more black judges in Alabama courtrooms. The Law Center lost and is currently appealing.
Mr. Dees has also filed lawsuits against the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists.
Yet, the record at the center does not stop the criticism.
“Clearly they’ve done some very positive and favorable and exciting things.” Mr. Jackson said. “But you can’t go out and preach racial sensitivity and racial tolerance and all these types of things without practicing all these types of things you are preaching about.”
No Black Slots or White Slots
Mr. Dees said there are no hiring quotas at the center.
“We don’t have black slots and white slots,” he said.
He also said, “Probably the most discriminated people in America today are white men when it comes to jobs because there are more of those who had more education opportunities and who the test scores show are scoring better and on paper look more qualified. That’s why you have so many reverse discrimination cases around.”
Still, Mr. Dees said the Law Center has tried to hire black attorneys. Of the at least 14 staff attorneys who have worked at the center, two have been black. “It is not easy to find black lawyers. Any organization can tell you that,” Mr. Dees said in an interview.
“The job of legal director, it was offered to Vanzetta McPherson. Vanzetta had a private practice and preferred to stay there.” Mr. Dees said.
“I diligently sought to ask her to be our legal director, not because she’s black, but because she’s an excellent lawyer and has enormous presence… And when (U.S. District) Judge (Myron) Thompson worked in the AG’s office, we sought to employ him. … He chose to go into private practice in Dothan.”
Mr. Dees’ assertion that good black attorneys are hard to find didn’t sit well with Dr. Ogletree. “That’s galling to me. They’re not hard to find, and they’re not hard to please,” he said.
Dr. Ogletree said that if the few black lawyers who’ve worked at the Law Center had better experiences, they “would have paved the way for others to come.”
In the early 1980s, Dr. Ogletree worked with Dennis Sweet, one of the two black staff attorneys in the history of the center. And as a professor, he’s taught Ms. Lee and others who’ve interned at the Law Center.
“My students have come back with very disappointing experiences. I have not in good conscience been able to encourage people to go there,” he said.
Blacks expect to encounter racism at corporate law firms. “It’s particularly disappointing” to encounter racism at a civil rights organization, Dr. Ogletree said.
Internal Racial Grumbling
Internal racial grumbling surfaced to the point in 1985 that staff attorney Ira Burnim proposed an “internal affirmative action committee.” According to an internal Law Center memorandum written by Mr. Dees to board chairman Joe Levin.
“(Montgomery Mayor) Emory Folmar would be having a good laugh if he knew I was being accused of being a racist by some center staffers. I don’t think I need to comment on such nonsense.” Mr. Dees wrote in the memorandum, “I am interested in finding out how our black employees perceive their treatment and in working with all here to solve any problems that exist.”
Mr. Dees memorandum followed a July 18, 1985, meeting of the Center’s Operations Committee, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by the Advertiser.
At that meeting, racial feelings “were also emphasized, both positively and negatively,” according to the minutes, written by Randall Williams, now the president of Black Belt Communications Group, a Montgomery book publishing company.
“Positively because recent hirings seemed to be bringing the SPLC staff closer in line with the philosophies expressed in the center’s work and public image,” Mr. Williams wrote. “Negatively, because it was no secret within the office that some of our black co-workers were experiencing problems, and it appeared, rightly or wrongly, that race was an issue even at the SPLC.”
Friendlier Reception Expected
The Law Center’s more recent actions drew the ire of Loretta Ross, program director for the Center for Democratic Renewal, a white supremacy monitoring group based in Atlanta.
Ms. Ross was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying she wondered about the effectiveness of the center’s lawsuits against white supremacists. The story brought a terse letter to Ms. Ross from Danny Welch, director of the Law Center’s Klanwatch program.
“We took pride in helping CDR in its initial stages of development,” Mr. Welch wrote, adding that he was disappointed “you find it necessary to criticize the work of the center.”
Ms. Ross said, “They act like they have hegemony over how to conduct a civil rights debate in this country, which I find a strange posture coming from a group of white men … I don’t (consider) them my mentors. I mean, I have a 25-year history (in civil rights) as long as Morris. Why should I? I have — I would say advantage — of having been African American.
“… The number of people in this country who are experts on white supremacists is fairly small. And the number that are not white is even smaller, so you’d think they’d try to be a little friendlier.”
Friendly board: Friends, associates fill board
Montgomery Advertiser Staff Writer
February 19, 1994
- Good friends of Morris Dees.
- People who have benefited from Mr. Dees’ services without paying for them.
- Past and present co-workers of Mr. Dees.
- A lawyer who helped block an attempt by Mr. Dees’ second wife to get Southern Poverty Law Center financial records during a divorce case.
- Mr. Dees’ personal physician.
- Mr. Dees himself.
These are some of the people who have served on the governing body of the Southern Poverty Law Center — its board of directors.
The center’s board, as that of other charities, is made up of volunteers who monitor how the charity spends its money and determine whether it conducts worthwhile programs.
But at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the board doesn’t govern at all, said two former staff attorneys and a former business partner of Mr. Dees.
Mr. Dees calls all the shots, they say.
Since Mr. Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971, he has been regarded as the Law Center’s driving force.
“Essentially, they (board members) are people Morris handpicks and, I think, pretty much can be counted on to vote however it is Morris recommends they vote on anything he needs a vote on,” says former center legal director Dennis Balske, who worked at the center from 1979 to 1985. He now is a public defense lawyer in Portland, Ore.
Former staff attorney Deborah Ellis said, “Having now worked for other non-profit organizations, the board of directors (at the Law Center) was the least independent board of directors I’ve ever seen. They seemed like a shadow board really.”
Ms. Ellis worked at the center from 1984 to 1986. Since then she has worked for two public interest law organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ms. Ellis and Mr. Balske were among the four legal staff members who left the center in the mid-1980s after a dispute with Mr. Dees about the center’s direction.
“In terms of the driving force of the Southern Poverty Law Center, it’s Morris Dees,” said his former business partner, Millard Fuller, now president of Habitat for Humanity International, a home-building charity. “You can’t think of another name in terms of the Southern Poverty Law Center but Morris Dees.”
Millard Farmer, an Atlanta lawyer who worked with Mr. Dees in the mid-1970s before the two had a bitter falling out, said: “Morris is the center. He is momma, poppa, children and everything in between. ”
And Ken Albrecht, president of the National Charities Information Bureau, one of three charity watchdogs in the United States, said, “I think what you’re talking about is a one-man show.”
Even Julian Bond, a supporter of Mr. Dees who feels Mr. Dees is unfairly attacked by critics, said this of the center: “it’s his creation. It is his.”
Mr. Bond served as the first president of the center, a board position that Mr. Dees described as “largely honorary” in his 1991 autobiography, “A Season for Justice.”
Not a ‘rubber stamp’
Mr. Dees dismisses the claim that he controls the Law Center, saying, “Our board of directors runs the center.”
Board members also took exception to Mr. Fuller’s comments.
“I ain’t nobody’s rubber stamp,” said Joe Levin, a Washington lawyer who co-founded the Law Center with Mr. Dees, and now serves as chairman of the board of directors. Mr. Levin also serves as president of the Law Center.
Jack Watson, an Atlanta lawyer who served as former President Jimmy Carter’s chief-of-staff in 1980 and 1981, said, “Anyone who knows me would sort of chuckle at the description of me as a rubber-stamp fellow.”
Mr. Dees described Mr. Levin and Mr. Watson as close and good friends, respectively, in his autobiography.
The Montgomery Advertiser requested minutes of board meetings from five of the six board members, none of whom provided them. Mr. Levin, the chairman, also refused to provide specific dates the board has met.
At any time since 1971, the Law Center’s board of directors has had between three and six members.
In contrast, Habitat for Humanity has 27 board members, including former U.S. housing secretary Jack Kemp. Former President Jimmy Carter has also served on the board.
“We meet three times a year, and the meetings are three-day meetings. And they are knock-down, drag-out, fully engaged board meetings,” Mr. Fuller said.
The difference between the Law Center’s and Habitat’s boards simply could be a reflection of the size of the organizations they oversee, said Pat Clark, a member of the Law Center’s board who once served on Habitat for Humanity’s board.
“There’s definitely a difference,” said Ms. Clark, who once worked for Mr. Dees as director of the Law Center’s Klanwatch program. “But I think the difference has a lot to do with the fact that at Habitat there are a ton more employees … the work is international.”
Speaking of the Law Center’s board meetings, she added, “I feel that we are kept very much abreast of what’s happening, and we are encouraged to ask questions and so forth. But I think the reality is that because it is so well-defined and so well-run, it doesn’t require a lot of additional membership (on the board) or a lot of discussion.”
Here is a look at past and current board members and their relationship with the Law Center:
- Bullock County probate judge Rufus Huffman was elected to the board Jan. 21, 1973, according to a Law Center newsletter.
In 1977, he became the first black probate judge in Bullock County history. A subsequent change in county policy cut into his salary, according to court records and Law Center literature.
On Nov. 13, 1981, the Law Center sued Bullock County, arguing successfully that the new policy discriminated against blacks in Bullock County because only independently wealthy people could serve as probate judge, according to court records.
In addition to serving on the board, Judge Huffman has assisted in fund raising. At least twice in the 1980s, the center mailed fund-raising letters out under his letterhead and with his signature.
Judge Huffman answered questions briefly before referring a reporter to Mr. Levin.
“All of our efforts have been, I think, honorable and been successful,” Judge Williams said.
- W. Clyde Williams was elected to the board Jan. 21, 1973, according to the center’s newsletter. Six months later, the Law Center used its money and legal expertise to help start a law school at Miles College, where Mr. Williams served as president. Mr. Williams no longer serves on the board.
- Dr. Hugh MacGuire, who said he has served as Mr. Dees’ personal physician, was on the board in 1985, according to Law Center literature. He said Mr. Dees asked him to serve when the Law Center “needed a quorum” at its meetings.
- On Jan. 21, 1973, Mr. Dees was elected to the board of directors, according to the center’s newsletter. It is unclear how long he served, but by 1981 he was no longer on the board, according to Law Center newsletters.
- Mr. Levin, the long-time chairman of the board, co-founded the Law Center with Mr. Dees and worked there until 1977. Then, Mr. Levin moved to Washington, DC, to become chief counsel for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Mr. Dees wrote about their relationship in his autobiography: “Our staff was close, but none so close to me as Joe… We met at center board meetings, which he chaired, but our busy schedules otherwise kept us apart.”
- Mr. Watson, a current board member, became good friends with Mr. Dees when the two worked on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, according to Mr. Dees’ book.
- Howard Mandell, a current board member, worked at the Law Center in the 1970s. And he represented the Law Center during Mr. Dees’ divorce from his second wife, Maureene in 1979, according to court records.
- US Magistrate John Carroll worked for the Law Center in the 1970s and early 1980s. He left the Law Center to work for Mr. Mandell’s law firm and began serving on the Law Center’s board, Mr. Dees wrote in his autobiography.
Judge Carroll served on the board from 1985 to 1987, at a time when he “remained the person I felt most comfortable with discussing personal matters and Law Center business,” Mr. Dees wrote.
- Edward Ashworth was a colleague of Mr. Levin’s at a Washington law firm several years before joining the board in 1987. He left the board in 1992 and has since gone on to become the Executive Director of the Law Center.
- Frances M. Green, a current board member, said she has known Mr. Dees and Mr. Levin since the early 1970s when she worked in Montgomery.
- Ms. Clark, another current board member, said she used to work for Mr. Dees at the Law Center.
“They’re all very sensitive, intelligent people,” Mr. Dees said of the board. In fact, they even recommend litigation from time to time, concepts for litigation, things they feel like ought to be dealt with.”
END STORY ————————————————————————————————
Charity directors’ often only oversight
Advertiser Staff Writer
February 19, 1994
The government does not regulate them fully. Prosecutors know they’re often politically incorrect targets. There are no stockholders demanding accountability. And journalists often ignore them.
So who is left to look after the nations’ charities?
Each charities own board of directors, that’s who.
“The strictest (government ) regulations are no match for a strong board. When organizations go astray, the boards have failed to execute their responsibility as public trusts,” said Peter Bell, president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and author of “Fulfilling the Public Trust: Ten Ways to help Nonprofit Boards Maintain Accountability.”
“The board needs to be an independent governing body,” said Ken Albrecht, president of the National Charities Information Bureau.
What’s the biggest problem among boards?
The collapse of “constructive tension” between the board and the full-time professional staff of the nonprofit group, Mr. Bell said.
A lack of tension leads to “unchecked authority” for the chief executive or chairman of the board, he said.
Mr. Albrecht said that a question to ask about a nonprofit is, “Who is on the board? Are they friends and cronies?”
Mr. Bell said, “Often, they’re only paper boards. Someone starts an organization and they have a vision, and so they fill the board with friends and supporters, many of whom are hesitant to question the visionary. There often isn’t the full oversight needed.”
Uwe Reinhart, a Princeton University economist who specializes in nonprofits said, “The trustees at most of these charities are patsies. Usually they are the golf partners of the director. He picks them because he knows they won’t be a pain in the ass.”
One well-publicized scandal occurred in 1992, under a weak board, Mr. Bell and Mr. Albrecht said.
That year, United Way of America president William Aramony resigned in the wake of news reports that his compensation, including benefits, totaled $463,000.
“It was a situation in which the board deferred to the paid staff head,” Mr. Albrecht said.
END STORY ————————————————————————————————
Black board member overruled
Advertiser Staff Writer
February 19, 1994
When the Montgomery Advertiser asked Pat Clark for written reports, or minutes, of board meetings of the Southern Poverty Law Center, here was her response:
“Oh, sure. I’m positive. I don’t know if I have mine, but I’m sure the Law Center would provide them to you,” Ms. Clark, a board member, said in an October interview.
Such was not the case.
“You cannot have the minutes to board meetings,” board chairman Joe Levin told the Advertiser a short time after a reporter spoke with Ms. Clark.
In a subsequent Nov. 2 letter to Mr. Levin, the newspaper allowed him to block out sections of the minutes that would reveal confidential information.
But Mr. Levin also declined that request.
“I can easily foresee continued debate with you over what should or should not be excluded,” he wrote in a Nov. 5 letter.
Ms. Clark never sent her minutes to the Advertiser.
In a Nov. 22 interview she was again asked for the minutes.
“You know I can’t now. It puts me in an awful bind,” she said.
Ms. Clark is one of two blacks on the six-member board of directors. Edward Ashworth, the center’s white executive director, cited her as an example of an independent thinking black leader at the center.
The other black member of the board — Bullock County Probate Judge Rufus Huffman — answered questions only briefly when contacted by the Advertiser and referred the call to Mr. Levin, a white co-founder of the center.
Another board member, Howard Mandell, said that releasing board minutes “would be a call” for the center’s staff.
“Have you spoken to the people there about it?” he asked.