The Mississippi office of Southern Poverty Law Center focuses
on children at risk and teaching tolerance.
By Hannah Saulters Photo by Hubert Worley
Founded in 1971 “to ensure that the promises of the civil rights movement became a reality for all,” the Southern Poverty Law Center uses legal action to promote civil equality. Over time, its priorities have expanded from strictly promoting positive race relations to encompassing issues of childhood education, LGBT rights and immigrant justice to better meet the needs of America’s changing demographics. In an interview, managing attorney, and former lawyer with Butler Snow, Jody Owens spoke on his particular interest in education, saying, “The new civil rights issues are in the areas of justice and education. This country’s education system is one of the best things we have to offer. A child who’s not educated has no opportunities. We’re disenfranchising an entire population as a state.”
This issue of disenfranchisement is central to understanding the multi-faceted goals of the Center. Doing pro bono work that is paid for neither by the government nor clients, the SPLC works to bring to light injustices in the very systems meant to protect citizens, such as in education and criminal justice. However, as Jody notes, “Systems don’t want to change. Systems often are satisfied with the status quo,” even when the system sustaining itself looks like it is denying legal counsel to minors in juvenile detention or profiting from human trafficking, both cases the SPLC has litigated.
In addition to legal avenues for justice, communication and education are fundamental to combating discrimination. Jody, for example, attributes the major racial discrepancies in conviction rates for teens to a lack of understanding. “Some people think they’re helping the system by putting [people] behind bars for a long period of time,” he says. “We don’t always see our children, our sisters, our brothers, in people that are different. Independent of racism and sexism, we all have biases and we have to acknowledge and embrace those. But we also have to look at fairness and equity under the law.”
Not only does the SPLC confront institutional inertia on a regular basis, but also more personal issues of injustice. Jody says resignedly, “A vast majority of people don’t care what happens to other people, however wrong it might be, if they don’t think it can happen to them. People won’t accept wrong just because it’s wrong.” So to combat the abstract anonymity that characterizes social justice in the minds of its critics, the SPLC has developed interactive elements and evidence-based curricula on their website and in the classroom. Online, visitors to the SPLC web page have access to archives of former cases, in-depth summaries of the organization’s fields of interest, and a “hate map” that tallies the number of identified hate groups in each state.
With their Teaching Tolerance program, the SPLC provides a magazine, resources, and tool kits for free to teachers across the country to integrate issues of social justice into their classroom rhetoric, “because we realize that teachers have a difficult job of being underpaid and under-resourced.” Much of the resource material consists of anti-bullying campaigns and encourages students to interact with their classmates in a “mixed-up day” where students sit with different people during their lunch break.
For all that the Center has accomplished in courtrooms and classrooms, it still has plenty of work to do, especially in Mississippi where the state’s education rankings are some of the lowest in the country and incarcerations per capita and teen pregnancy rates continue to rise. “We have to do a top-to-bottom assessment of how we can get better and be better Mississippians for the state we all love. And to do this, we have to look at policies and practices that don’t work.”
This requires collaboration with other civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and the ACLU, but it also necessitates feedback from the community itself. As Jody observes, “Far too often people are content with highlighting the problem, pointing the finger, and not accepting the responsibility. So it’s one of the reasons we do what we do here. It’s not enough. It’ll never solve all of Mississippi’s problems, but if enough small groups of people try to do their part, we can leave Mississippi’s next generation better.”
For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.