T.S. Eliot once noted that April is the cruelest month, but I’d say the Southern Poverty Law Center would probably give the mantle to March, at least as far as 2019 is concerned.
On March 14, 82-year-old SPLC founder Morris Dees was fired amid vague hints regarding allegations of sexual harassment and gender and race discrimination. Over the coming weeks, a cascade of articles — the most notable written by Bob Moser, a former employee of the SPLC, for The New Yorker — noted that the Center’s finances suggested a “cash cow” at best and a hate-baiting scam at worst.
And then, just when you thought the month might go out like a lamb, Andrew McClinton pleaded guilty to arson on Friday.
Who’s Andrew McClinton? The Southern Poverty Law Center would probably like you to forget about him. Back in November 2016, a week before the elections, the church that McClinton was a member of in Greenville, Mississippi, was allegedly vandalized. The SPLC quickly jumped on the story.
“Fire fighters arrived to find Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church ‘heavily engulfed in flames’ with the words “Vote Trump’ spray-painted on the side of the building, according to Mayor Errick Simmons, who spoke at a press conference Wednesday morning,” its Hatewatch website reported.
“The city’s investigation is taking into account the nation’s history of attacks on black churches, according to Greenville Police Chief Delano Wilson, including those as recent as last year, when six Southern churches were damaged or destroyed.”
“This kind of attack happened in the 1950s, and 1960s, but it shouldn’t happen in 2016,” they quoted Mayor Simmons as saying. “Last night’s attack appears to be a race crime: the church has always been a symbol of the black community and a place for communication around civil rights, the same rights black communities were deprived.”
“We feel the (spray painted) quote was an intimidation of congregants’ right to vote,” Chief Wilson said at the time. “This is a predominately black church: that would definitely be a hate crime.”
Nobody thought that such a blatant act might not be the work of a white-robed hate criminal but that of a provocateur who wanted it to seem like it was. McClinton, a 47-year-old habitual offender who was a member of the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, was apparently just such a man.
“Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who is also the state fire marshal, told The Associated Press that investigators believe the graffiti was intended as a distraction from some other sort of wrongdoing. Chaney would not specify what that was,” the AP reported Friday.
“He tried to make the arson appear it was politically motivated, but it was not,” Chaney said.
The SPLC reported this after McClinton’s arrest in December 2016, correcting the Hatewatch article by putting a note at the top saying that “a suspect, a member of the church, was arrested in connection with the crime, and authorities now believe the attack was not politically motivated.”
The AP noted that “McClinton will be sentenced as a habitual offender because he was convicted of attempted armed robbery in 1997 and armed robbery in 2004, both in another part of Mississippi.”
The mayor’s twin defended his brother’s actions.
“There is a dark past in America and in the Deep South regarding the burning of African-American churches,” Derrick Simmons said. “The way law enforcement authorities initially investigated this matter as a hate crime I believe was warranted, considering the past and the history.”
This is perfectly justified. What isn’t is the alacrity with which the SPLC jumped upon it. They’re not the mayor of a town, after all. They present themselves as the dispassionate cataloguers of all the hate that’s fit to put on a list, provided the hate comes from something that could plausibly be identified as right-wing. The case of Andrew McClinton is another sad reminder of how that’s worked out for them.
By the way, the organization faces lawsuits from conservative groups that the Center put on their “hate list.” In January, the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes illegal immigration and supports stricter immigration laws, filed a lawsuit against the SPLC for being listed as a “hate group.”
The group filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations lawsuit against the SPLC in January, according to The Associated Press, saying that accusations that the group was “racist” and “anti-immigrant” had cost the group donations and siphoned away financial support.
While there’s been plenty of opposition to the SPLC’s hate group list in the past, it was the first RICO lawsuit against them — and one gets the feeling it’s unlikely to be the last.
March, in other words, may not be the only cruel month for the SPLC.
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