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SPLC fires founder Morris Dees; internal emails highlight issues with harassment, discrimination

Josh Moon

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The Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday announced that it had fired Morris Dees, the center’s co-founder and long-time public face of the civil rights organization, amid undisclosed allegations that Dees failed to meet the standards of the SPLC.

A statement sent by SPLC president Richard Cohen alluded to issues within the organization that made for a working environment that was lacking in “truth, justice, equity and inclusion.” It promised an internal review by an outside entity to clean up the issues and address employees’ concerns. Those concerns were made known to SPLC leadership in a series of emails sent to SPLC leadership and obtained by APR. 

“As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is 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,” the statement from Cohen read. “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.

In two conversations with APR on Thursday, Dees flatly denied inappropriate behavior, saying any allegations of sexual harassment were “totally untrue.” He also said the statement released by Cohen was “unfortunate,” but then added that he wouldn’t say anything negative against it.

“I love the center and spent my life building it,” Dees said. “I will never say a bad word about it or any of the wonderful people who work there.”

In an earlier conversation, Dees said he believed his firing was more the result of the SPLC’s need to move in a different direction. He also noted his age and that he spent very little time at the center’s headquarters in Montgomery anyway.

Dees, 82, is a polarizing figure — both in Alabama and nationally — drawing deserved praise for the SPLC’s half-century of fights for equality and civil rights and drawing almost equal hatred for what some perceive as a political bias against rightwing political groups.

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Not surprisingly, when the SPLC statement hit the media, the rumors and speculation began. Mostly relying on old, disproven allegations, right-leaning politicians and pundits speculated wildly that Dees’ ouster was due to racist behavior or misspending SPLC donations.

But internal emails obtained by APR related to Dees’ firing appear to show that the problems — which employees said spanned from sexual harassment to gender- and race-based discrimination — were more systemic and widespread, creating an atmosphere over several years in which female and minority employees felt mistreated. The employees also said that they felt their complaints were either not heard or resulted in retaliation from senior staff.

The spark that ignited the near-mutiny at SPLC appears to have been the resignation of senior attorney Meredith Horton, and an email she sent to senior leadership. That email noted the hardships women and employees of color faced at SPLC. It was forwarded by Cohen to all staff with a message that there would be a commitment within SPLC to address those concerns.

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An email signed by numerous SPLC employees followed shortly thereafter and made numerous demands. It also laid bare many of the problems that employees have faced over the years.

Specifically, the employees’ email alleged multiple instances of sexual harassment by Dees, and it alleges that reports of his conduct were ignored or covered up by SPLC leadership. A subsequent letter from other SPLC employees demands an investigation into the alleged coverup of Dees’ alleged harassment.  

The emails noted that multiple female SPLC employees had resigned over the years due to the harassment and/or the subsequent retaliation by SPLC leadership when they reported the incidents.

Asked about those allegations, Dees flatly denied them.

“I don’t know who you’re talking to or talking about, but that is not right,” Dees said.

Neither of the letters, though, focused on Dees. Instead, while acknowledging that his firing was a good thing, the SPLC employees are more concerned with the overall atmosphere, which they specifically say goes well beyond Dees. To that end, they demand a number of internal investigations, training courses and new positions created — such as an ombudsman — to adequately protect employees who speak out about mistreatment and discrimination.

Cohen and the rest of the SPLC leadership team appear accepting of those demands, having already promised an investigation by an outside firm.

For Dees, it would appear to be a regrettable ending to an otherwise iconic life and work. Dees and his law partner, Joseph Levin, founded SPLC in 1971 and set about attacking hate groups all over the country.

SPLC was so successful at finding creative approaches to imprison hate group leaders or break apart entire groups that Dees and his organization quickly became the focus of the groups. His offices were firebombed at one point and Dees has lived with 24-hour security at his home in Montgomery for years now.

Dees said he hasn’t tried a case now in at least a decade and his role SPLC had been essentially limited to fundraising — at which he was still quite effective, according to his colleagues. Recent tax filings show the SPLC with more than $450 million despite lofty salaries for its top leaders.

Asked if he was concerned that this apparent end to his career would tarnish his life’s work, Dees said no.

“What we’ve done at SPLC is in history books, in movies and TV shows — it can’t be erased by any one person,” he said. “We’ve done too much good for that.”

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Education

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program gets more national attention

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s First Class Pre-K program gives children advantages in math and reading that last into middle school, far longer than the gains studied in other high-quality pre-K programs, according to an article published in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy.

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

While programs like Head Start and Tennessee’s pre-K program have been shown to lead to significant educational improvements when children enter kindergarten, those benefits appear to experience a “fadeout” within a year. 

The new research followed students through the 7th grade. Further research should examine the persistence of benefits through high school, according to the article, which was published by researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, ThinkData and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.

The research “is reassuring and supports accountability for continued investments and expansion,” the article concluded.

The journal that featured the article is a publication of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

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Congress

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne announces new chief of staff

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, on Friday announced that Seth Morrow will serve as his chief of staff.

“As we enter the last half of 2020, my office remains busy assisting constituents and advancing our legislative priorities. I know Seth shares my focus on finishing out my term in Congress strong, and he is well prepared to move into the Chief of Staff role,” Byrne said in a statement. “My staff and I will continue working hard every day to fight for the people of Southwest Alabama and advance our conservative agenda.”

Morrow is a native of Guntersville and has worked for Byrne since June 2014, serving as deputy chief of staff and communications director. 

“I am grateful for this opportunity, and I’m committed to ensuring our office maintains our first class service to the people of Southwest Alabama. Congressman Byrne has always had the hardest working team on Capitol Hill, and I know we will keep that tradition going,” Morrow said in a statement.

Morrow replaces Chad Carlough, who has held the position of Byrne’s chief of staff since March 2017. 

“Chad has very ably led our Congressional team over the last few years, and I join the people of Southwest Alabama in thanking him for his dedicated service to our state and our country,” Byrne said. 

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Crime

Alabama Department of Corrections investigating inmate death

Robert Earl Adams, 40, died on Aug. 5 and although no foul play is suspected, a department spokeswoman in a message to APR said the exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections is investigating the death of an inmate at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.

Robert Earl Adams, 40, died on Aug. 5 and although no foul play is suspected, a department spokeswoman in a message to APR said the exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.

“While Adams’ exact cause of death is pending the results of a full autopsy, at the time of his passing inmate Adams was not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, was not under quarantine following direct exposure to an inmate or staff member who previously had tested positive, and was not in medical isolation as a result of a positive COVID-19 test,” said ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in the message.

Because Adams was not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, he had not been tested, Rose said.

An ADOC worker who contacted APR Friday morning about the death, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions from ADOC administrators, said it’s suspected that Adams may have overdosed after being given a cigarette laced with a drug.

Adams is at least the sixteenth state inmate to die this year from either homicide, suspected drug overdose or suicide. Additionally, fifteen inmates and two prison workers have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

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Alabama GOP chair: “We expect our elected officials to follow the law” after Dismukes arrest

“Will Dismukes matter: We expect our elected officials, regardless of Party, to follow the laws of our state and nation,” Alabama GOP chair Terry Lathan said on Twitter.

Brandon Moseley

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State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, has been arrested on the charge of felony theft.

Alabama Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan said Thursday that Alabamians expect their leaders to follow the law. Her comments came in response to news that an arrest warrant had been issued for State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, on the charge of felony theft.

“Will Dismukes matter: We expect our elected officials, regardless of Party, to follow the laws of our state and nation,” Lathan said on Twitter. “No one is immune to these standards. It is very disappointing to hear of these allegations. This is now a legal matter and it must run its course.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Friday in a statement that Dismukes will get his day in court.

“As a former law enforcement officer, I have faith in the criminal justice process and trust that he will receive a full and fair hearing,” McCutcheon said. “Both Democrats and Republicans have been accused of similar crimes in the past, and we cannot tolerate such behavior whether the lawmaker involved has a D or an R beside their name.”

Dismukes has been charged by his former employer, a custom flooring company, of felony theft charges. Dismukes left that employer and started his own custom flooring company.

Dismukes, who is serving in his first term and is one of the youngest members of the Alabama Legislature, has been heavily criticized for his participation in a birthday party for Confederate Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Selma. Forrest was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

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The party in Selma occurred the same week that Congressman John Lewis’s funeral events were happening in Selma. Dismukes resigned his position at Valley Baptist Church when the Southern Baptists threatened to disassociate the Prattville Church if they retained Dismukes. He has defiantly refused to step down from the Legislature, but if convicted of a felony, he would be automatically removed from office.

Both Democrats and Republicans have called for Dismukes to resign from the Alabama House of Representatives over his being the chaplain of the Prattville Sons of Confederate Veterans and his Facebook post lauding Forrest. The investigation into the theft predates the controversies surrounding Dismukes’s glorification of the Confederacy and Forrest.

Republican State Sen. Clyde Chambliss, who also represents Prattville, has called on Dismukes to resign.

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“Since first being elected in 1996, I’ve had a policy of not publicly criticizing other elected officials, but at this time I am making an exception since Rep. Dismukes is MY state representative. He does not represent my views or the views of the vast majority of people of District 88,” Chambliss said. “The post is bad enough, the timing is even worse, but the real problem is that an elected official in 2020 would attend a celebration of the life of someone that led a group that terrorized and killed other human beings. He has had 24 hours to understand why people are so upset, but his interview on WSFA a few moments ago confirms that he is lacking in understanding and judgment — he should resign immediately.”

Alabama Democratic Party Chairman State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, has repeatedly called for Dismukes to resign from the Alabama House of Representatives.

The Alabama Democratic Party recently said in a statement, “Will Dismukes is morally unfit for office. Republicans and Democrats statewide seem to agree. Unfortunately, despite the mounting calls for his immediate resignation, Will intends to stay in office and seek re-election without penalty from the Republican Party.”

“While Alabama Republicans hope this will be a distant memory when Dismukes runs for re-election in 2022, we are not going to let him off the hook,” the ADP wrote. “The Alabama Democratic Party is going to leverage every tool we have to send Will packing when he comes up for re-election in two years.”

“In our darkest hours in life there is still light in Christ!” Dismukes wrote on social media Wednesday. “As the storm continues to blow with heavy force, there is yet a peace that this too shall pass. I guess sometimes we find out if we have built our house on sand or the solid rock of Christ. Psalm 23.”

When Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, was indicted on 21 charges of felony ethics violations, he did not resign and actually remained speaker until a jury of his peers in Lee County convicted him on 12 counts.

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