The Southern Poverty Law Center said Thursday that it had fired its co-founder and chief trial lawyer, Morris Dees, after nearly a half-century, during which he helped build the organization into a fearsome powerhouse that focused on hate crimes and with an endowment that approached half a billion dollars.
The group’s president, Richard Cohen, did not give a specific reason for the dismissal of Dees, 82, on Wednesday. But Cohen said in a statement that as a civil-rights group, the SPLC was “committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world.”
“When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action,” Cohen said.
Cohen’s statement suggested that Dees’ firing was linked to workplace conduct. He said the center, which is based in Montgomery, Alabama, had requested “a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices” in a bid to ensure that the organization was a place where “all voices are heard and all staff members are respected.”
In an interview Thursday evening, Dees said he had reviewed the SPLC’s statement on his dismissal but noted that it did not include any specific allegations against him.
“All I can say is it was not my decision,” said Dees, who added that he had limited involvement with the organization in recent years.
Asked whether he had engaged in any behavior that could have been perceived as improper, he replied, “I have no idea how people take things.”
Dees and the SPLC have been credited with undermining the influence of the Ku Klux Klan and extremist groups. But in recent years, the center has come under scrutiny for its classifications of “hate groups,” and whether the organization has abused that label in pursuit of a political agenda or increased donations.
The center has tracked extremist activity and hate groups throughout the country since the 1980s. Its 2018 Intelligence Project report identified 1,020 hate groups, its largest number ever. Conservatives have accused the group of unfairly including right-leaning organizations on the list.
Dees, the son of an Alabama farmer, sold his book publishing business to begin the civil rights law practice that would eventually become the SPLC in 1971. His co-founders were civil rights leader Julian Bond and another young Montgomery lawyer, Joe Levin.
In 1981, Dees, a skilled marketer and a shrewd legal strategist, won $7 million in damages against the United Klans of America on behalf of the family of Michael Donald, a 19-year-old black man whose body was left hanging in a tree in Mobile, Alabama.
An all-white jury awarded the verdict after Dees compared Donald to martyrs of the civil rights movement, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“They sacrificed a human being to get some publicity for the Klan,” Dees said. “He’ll go down in civil rights history in the fight for black rights. I hope your verdict goes down in history right beside him.”
The center’s most recent tax documents showed an endowment of $471 million. In response to criticism about its wealth, the center has pointed to the high cost of engaging in long, complicated legal battles. Skepticism has persisted anyway.
After the deadly violence at a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, donations to the organization came flooding in. Tim Cook, head of Apple, announced the company would donate $1 million to the center. It also received a $1 million grant from a foundation created by George and Amal Clooney.
“I am glad to see Dees leave SPLC, whatever the reason,” William A. Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School and an outspoken critic of the group, said Thursday.
“SPLC long ago focused on combating the Ku Klux Klan, but then abused the reputation it earned for those efforts by demonizing political opponents through the use of hate and extremist lists to stifle speech by people who presented no risk of violence,” Jacobson said.
But Don E. Siegelman, a Democratic former governor of Alabama, praised Dees for his contributions to civil rights.
“Morris has contributed a great deal to civil rights and human rights and justice, and the pursuit of those who have committed hate crimes,” said Siegelman. He added that he had not closely monitored the organization’s recent work. (Siegelman spent years in a federal prison after being convicted of corruption charges.)
In 2016, the King Center in Atlanta gave its highest honor to Dees: the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, according to an article on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.
It quotes Dr. Bernice King, King’s daughter, who leads the center, as saying that Dees “has tirelessly, and bravely championed the rights of the disenfranchised.”
Previous recipients of the award include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks and President Jimmy Carter.
This is not the first time the center has had to deal with public issues of workplace conduct. In 1994, The Montgomery Advertiser published an eight-part series on the SPLC that included allegations of discriminatory treatment of black employees.
The report included accounts from staff members accusing Dees of being a racist, and suggested that black employees felt threatened. The center and Dees denied the accusations.
Dees said he learned of his firing in an email this week. On Thursday evening, he repeatedly said he would not “say anything negative about the center or its employees.”
“I’ll let my life’s work and my reputation speak for itself,” he said. “I wish the center the absolute best. We have 700,000 donors, and I think they know me and they don’t think anything negatively about me.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.