The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), one of the nation’s top civil rights organizations known for tracking hate groups, chose an African-American woman to lead the organization amid revelations of racism and sexism in the workplace.
SPLC’s board of directors voted unanimously to name Karen Baynes-Dunning as interim president and CEO, a statement released on Tuesday said. She resigned from the board to start her new position immediately.
Last month, SPLC President Richard Cohen, stepped down after firing the organization’s co-founder and chief litigator Morris Dees who was the longtime public face and force behind SPLC. The nonprofit dismissed Dees without addressing widespread allegations of its institutional culture of discriminating against Black workers and sexual harassment.
SPLC said naming Baynes-Dunning as interim president “is a critical step” in helping the organization move forward.
“She has consistently shown leadership and dedication to the SPLC and brings a personal commitment to staff engagement in all of her work,” the statement said.
Since Dees was fired, former and current employees have come forward to describe a work environment that clearly contradicted the values SPLC has said it promotes. Allegations of gender discrimination and racism go back decades according to more than two dozen current and former employees and board members who spoke to AL.com.
Donald Jackson, who was an intern at SPLC in 1987, said he came to the organization with expectations based on SPLC’s reputation. However, he soon realized that the reputation was at odds with the workplace environment he found, which was not always friendly to Black employees.
“They’ve done a lot of incredible things, very positive things, the Center and Morris as well,” Jackson, who is African-American, told AL.com. He added, “Discrimination can sometimes have a liberal face. And so can racism.”
The Montgomery, Alabama-based organization began in 1971 as a small firm dedicated to fighting racism and segregation. Since then, it has grown into one of the largest and most influential civil rights advocacy groups in the nation, with revenues in 2017 exceeding $120 million.
SPLC stepped onto the national stage when it won a $7 million award in 1987 against the United Klans of America for the family of Michael Donald, a 19-year-old African-American man who was brutally murdered and then hanged by the domestic terrorist group.
The organization hopes that Baynes-Dunning can help to restore its reputation.
She is a former juvenile court judge who has served in numerous leadership positions in the public and nonprofit sectors to help improve the policies and services that affect the lives of vulnerable children.
“Her extensive legal and management experience makes her an incredible asset to our team and the perfect person to step into this role,” SPLC said.