The Southern United States in the early 1970s was a time of both possibility and disappointment. As a result of the work of civil rights activists, the 60s had seen the creation of new laws seeking to guarantee racial equality across the country. But after these victories had been achieved, legislative changes often did not do enough to change people’s lived realities – particularly for black communities in the South.
Based in Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) is a law practice that was founded to advocate for the implementation of the new civil rights laws and to act as a voice for disenfranchised Americans.
Focusing at first on white supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and neo-Nazis, the SPLC waged legal battles and was successful in undercutting these groups’ ability to operate by targeting their financial base. Throughout the 1990s and 80s SPLC won $43 million dollars in compensation for the victims of extremist groups. In 1987, for instance, SPLC won a $7 million dollar case against the United Klans of America for the lynching of Michael Donald in Atlanta. Donald was a 19-year old black man who was chosen at random and killed by the Klan after an interracial jury had failed to convict another black man of the murder of a white police officer. The same night that Donald was killed, the Klan also burned a cross on the courthouse lawn.
Depleted of financial resources after SPLC’s win, the United Klans were forced to shut down. This group had also been responsible for the 1963 bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in which four black girls were killed. Birmingham had gone through close to 50 racially-motivated attacks instigated by the Klan over the previous 15 years, earning the city the nickname of “Bombingham.”
Seeing the threat that the centre posed to the KKK’s existence, SPLC itself became the target of violence in 1983 through a nighttime firebomb attack on their office. More than a year later, two KKK members and a supporter were arrested and charged with arson and possession of explosives in connection to the SPLC firebombing. All three pled guilty to the charges. The SPLC continues to be subjected to regular threats and intimidation and as such, security remains a concern for staff. Several people have been found guilty of plotting against SPLC and its chief trial counsel.
As SPLC’s work progressed, the centre expanded its investigation work to systematically track and monitor all extremist groups in the U.S. These include groups using religious and cultural rhetoric in order to exert control over women’s bodies and attempt to enforce strict, rigid gender roles. Religious fundamentalists from a variety of traditions, including Evangelical Christian, Mormon and Muslim, have created alliances to block the rights of LGBTIQ people and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has resulted in many regressive measures restricting women’s access to contraception and legal abortion. SPLC is also tacking the rise of extremist groups which are spreading hate and lobbying for anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies through the use of xenophobic nationalist rhetoric.
The data collected by SPLC reveals that number and power of extremist groups has grown over the past few decades; since 2000, the number of groups in the U.S. has increased by 56 percent. The total number of active hate groups in the country now sits at 939. As extremist forces grow and exert more influence in the mainstream political sphere, their discourses of hate are now being openly espoused by politicians in the United States and being reflected in public policy. The Guttmacher Institute highlights this disturbing trend in a report on abortion legislation in the U.S., noting that more abortion restrictions were passed between 2011 and 2013, than in the entire previous decade. This includes 70 anti-abortion measures passed in 2013 alone.
Anti-rights groups from the United States are also carrying their messages of intolerance abroad. As the religious right loses ground on issues such as same-sex marriage across the States, they expand their missions elsewhere. Heidi Beirich, the Director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, notes, “The presumption is that they’ve lost the United States. That their vision of what society is like is no longer possible here. Most of these organizations are trying to build overseas arms, whether it’s through media or alliances or through churches, mission work or propaganda. In their view, they’re in a world-wide battle for civilization, and they’re going to go anywhere.”
In this environment, exposing the activities of extremist and religious fundamentalists groups in the United States has become key to holding them accountable and blocking their efforts to spread hate. Tracking, monitoring and litigation are important tools to raise awareness of the intolerance and violence that results from the spread of religious fundamentalism, and to separate mainstream politics from the extreme.
To learn about extremism in the U.S., see SPLC’s Hate Map, in which the locations and activities of hate groups across the country are monitored and shared with the public. Detailed findings from SPLC’s investigative journalism work are also published online on the Hatewatch blog.
 See “A Surge of State Abortion Restrictions Puts Providers—and the Women They Serve—in the Crosshairs,” Heather D. Boonstra and Elizabeth Nash, 2014:http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/gpr/17/1/gpr170109.html  For further reading, see “Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa,” Kapya Kaoma, 2012:http://www.politicalresearch.org/resources/reports/full-reports/colonizing-african-values/