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Civil rights group that helped bankrupt Idaho’s Aryan Nations fires cofounder

How a North Idaho attorney helped bankrupt the Aryan Nations

Norm Gissel, a Coeur d'Alene attorney, recognized the "call to battle" incident that eventually bankrupt the Aryan Nations in 2000.
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Norm Gissel, a Coeur d'Alene attorney, recognized the "call to battle" incident that eventually bankrupt the Aryan Nations in 2000.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nationally known nonprofit that monitors hate organizations, has fired co-founder Morris Dees, who once won a lawsuit that bankrupted a leading Ku Klux Klan group and helped bankrupt Northern Idaho’s Aryan Nations group.

A statement by Richard Cohen, the president of the Alabama-based law center, said Dees’ employment had been terminated, but it did not give a specific reason.

“As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world. When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action,” it said.

Reached by telephone, Dees said Thursday that the matter involved a personnel issue but did not elaborate. He said he wished the center well.

“I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is a very fine group and I devoted nearly 50 years of my life to it and I’m proud of its work,” Dees said.

“About being fired, all I can say is it wasn’t my decision and I wish the center the best.”

Dees, 82, co-founded the Montgomery-based law center with a partner in 1971 as a watchdog for minorities and the underprivileged. A decade later he won a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, whose son was murdered by KKK members in Mobile.

The office of the SPLC was firebombed in 1983, and three Klansmen were later arrested and pleaded guilty. In 2017, tax records show, the organization had some $450 million in assets. It operates in a high-security building near the church where the Rev. Martin Luther Jr. first served as a pastor.

The law center is best known for tracking groups it considers hate organizations and is a frequent target of conservative and far-right critics.

In 1999, Dees worked alongside Coeur d’Alene attorney Norm Gissel in a case that bankrupted Northern Idaho’s Aryan Nations. But more recently, the SPLC has been criticized for targeting conservative, politically active Christians.

In a statement about Dees ouster, the SPLC said it was “deeply committed to having a workplace that reflects the values it espouses - truth, justice, equity and inclusion, and we believe the steps we have taken today reaffirm that commitment.”

The SPLC said an outside group will review its workplace practices.

The Idaho Statesman contributed.

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Norm Gissel, a Coeur d'Alene attorney, recognized the "call to battle" incident that eventually bankrupt the Aryan Nations in 2000.

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