The Magazine

King of Fearmongers

Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center, scaring donors since 1971

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Morris Dees

Morris Dees

Jason Seiler

Last August a 28-year-old gay-rights volunteer named Floyd Corkins entered the office lobby of the Family Research Council (FRC), a Christian traditional-values group headquartered in Washington that condemns homosexual conduct and opposes same-sex marriage. Corkins took a gun from his backpack and fired three shots at building manager Leo Johnson, one of them wounding the unarmed Johnson in the arm before he wrested the gun from Corkins. On February 6 Corkins pleaded guilty to three felonies: committing an act of terrorism while armed, interstate transportation of a firearm and ammunition (he had bought the weapon in Virginia), and assault with intent to kill while armed. He faces a sentencing hearing on April 29 that could include up to 70 years in prison. According to federal prosecutors’ statements in court documents, Corkins told investigators that he had intended to kill Johnson and numerous other FRC employees. His backpack contained 15 sandwiches from the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, whose founder, S. Truett Cathy, contributed through his family foundation to several organizations opposed to gay marriage, including the FRC. According to prosecutors, Corkins said he had planned to smear the faces of the dead FRC employees with the sandwiches once his shooting spree ended.

Corkins found out about the FRC from the ever-expanding (at least in recent years) list of “hate groups” tracked on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil-rights behemoth bursting with donor cash headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama. Cofounded in 1971 by Morris S. Dees Jr. and Joseph Levin Jr. (who is now general counsel), the SPLC started out fighting legal battles against lingering segregation in the South. More recently—and more lucratively, its critics say—it has transformed itself into an all-purpose antihate crusader, labeling 1,007 different organizations across America at last count as “anti-gay,” “white nationalist,” “anti-Muslim,” “anti-immigrant,” or just plain hateful (one SPLC category is “general hate”). The SPLC put the FRC on its list of “anti-gay” organizations in 2010, and the SPLC’s “Hate Map” page, whose banner displays men in Nazi-style helmets giving Sieg Heil salutes, lists the FRC among 14 hate groups headquartered in the District of Columbia. The Hate Map doesn’t include the groups’ street addresses, but those typically take only a few seconds to find with Google. Besides the chicken sandwiches and some 50 rounds of ammunition found on Corkins’s person was the address of the Traditional Values Coalition, another D.C.-based “anti-gay” group listed on the SPLC’s Hate Map.

At the time of the shooting, FRC president Tony Perkins lost no time doing a sort of reverse Sarah Palin on the SPLC. Liberal columnists and bloggers had blamed Palin—“blood is on [her] hands,” wrote one—for the near-fatal shooting of former Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords near Tucson in 2011 because Palin had earlier placed Giffords on a “target list” of House Democrats to be defeated for reelection. (The Tucson gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, who killed six people in the crowd at Giffords’s event, turned out to be a schizophrenic whose politics, insofar as they could be determined, leaned left.) “The Southern Poverty Law Center is dangerous,” Perkins declared on his nightly radio show on February 6. “They are inciting hatred, and in this case a clear connection to violence. They need to be held accountable, and they need to be stopped before people are killed because of their reckless labeling and advocacy for homosexuality and their anti-Christian stance.”

Of course, it was as ridiculous to blame the SPLC for Corkins’s rampage as it had been to blame Palin for Loughner’s. Still, there was a delicious irony to savor: The “anti-hate” SPLC had unwittingly revved up someone who carried out an act that was unequivocally a hate crime: a potentially murderous vendetta against a group of people predicated solely on the religious and political views that they happened to hold.

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