Southern Poverty Law Center, frequent critic of conservatives, sees its president step down amid rash of departures

Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen is stepping down from the civil rights organization amid a series of high-profile departures and questions over its treatment of employees.

In a statement, Cohen said the organization will “emerge stronger” after an audit of its practices by Tina Tchen, a Chicago-based attorney and former chief of staff for former first lady Michelle Obama.

“We’re going through a difficult period right now, and I know that we’ll emerge stronger at the end of the process that we’ve launched with Tina Tchen,” the statement said. “Given my long tenure as the SPLC president, however, I do not think I should be involved in that process beyond cooperating with Tina, her team, and the board in any way that may be helpful.”

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Cohen has worked with the center since 1986 and was made president in 2003, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. He became one of its most prominent figures, bringing legal campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.

But in recent years, the center has drawn criticism from Republicans and conservatives who have accused the SPLC of unfairly labeling people and groups with conservative viewpoints as bigots.

Paypal came under fire from religious groups after its CEO revealed it works with the SPLC to help identify accounts to ban from its platform. Several groups called for a boycott of the digital payment system because it listed several conservative Christian organizations as "hate groups" or "extremists" because of their religious views.

Republican lawmakers have also questioned the working relationship between the SPLC and the FBI.

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U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said groups like the Christian Family Research Council (FRC) have been unfairly labeled as hate groups by the SPLC, while members of “Antifa” have not.

“The SPLC’s conflation of mainstream political advocacy groups with legitimate hate groups and domestic terror groups is absurd, frequently indiscriminate and dangerous,” Gaetz said.

“The SPLC’s conflation of mainstream political advocacy groups with legitimate hate groups and domestic terror groups is absurd, frequently indiscriminate and dangerous.”

— U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

Cohen's exit comes a week after SPLC co-founder Morris Dees was dismissed and some center staff raised concerns over whether the group's mission of combating hate and discrimination conflicted with the treatment of its minority employees.

In addition to Dees, an assistant legal director also left over gender and race equity concerns. The center’s senior staff and board are largely white, according to the Advertiser.

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About two dozen employees signed a letter raising concerns over “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Advertiser spoke with four employees who said there is a disconnect by what they saw as the center’s response to high-profile cases of police use of deadly force and prioritizing marketing and fundraising over civil rights work. The center remains a $450 million advocacy organization that surpasses other civil rights groups.