MONTGOMERY, Ala. — More than 2,000 people from all over the U.S. gathered here on Saturday for the 40th anniversary of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They celebrated accomplishments of the past and looked to the future of the Center’s ongoing struggle for civil rights. The events spanned three days at venues all over the city that was ground zero of the civil rights movement.
In four decades, the Center’s mission hasn’t changed. It’s carved in stone on the monument outside the headquarters, not far from the church where Martin Luther King Jr., served as pastor. The words on the monument are King’s famous paraphrase of Amos 5:24:
“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
But what has changed is the way the Center’s fight against hate and its struggle for justice has evolved and expanded onto new fronts. Education is central to that mission and the monument is a reminder of that, too, said Lecia Brooks, the Center’s outreach director.
The idea came from SPLC founder Morris Dees, who years ago was speaking to a group, mentioning names of those who died in the civil rights movement, she said. Young people in the crowd didn’t know who he was talking about.
That served as the inspiration for the memorial, where the names of those martyrs are now carved and which serves as a teaching tool to thousands of visitors to the center each year.
For its first 20 years, the Center did not have an educational program, said Maureen Costello, a veteran education and SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project director. Dees noticed that in litigation against hate groups and against perpetrators of hate crimes, many of the people he was up against were young.
“He wanted to find a way to keep hatred from developing,” Costello said. “He wanted us not just to be the people suing the bad guys, but the people trying to stop young people from becoming bad guys.”
At the opening assembly on Saturday morning the crying, terrified faces of a group of teenage boys flashed on a giant screen behind SPLC President Richard Cohen. He told the crowd those boys had beaten and killed a Hispanic man in Long Island, N.Y., just because he was Hispanic.
“Their lives were over,” Cohen said. “You want to be able to get to kids like that before something like that happens. Shake them and say, “What were you thinking about?”
Teaching Tolerance tries to do that by giving tools to individual teachers to promote anti-bias education. It helps teachers to identify stereotypes so their students can recognize stereotypes and realize they are a bad idea, Costello said.
The Center has produced seven short documentary films for classroom use that support the effort. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of copies have been sent to schools all over the country. Four of those films have been nominated for Academy Awards and two have won. The subjects have varied from the history of the civil rights movement to the plight of immigrants to the newest film, “Bullied,” which puts a human face on a gay victim of abuse in school.
“I am a former history teacher,” Costello said. “We are approaching a lot of important anniversaries in the civil rights movement, and I am not sure civil rights is being taught as a struggle,” she said. “The history of our country is an ongoing struggle to realize the ideals we set forth at the beginning. Life is better in America than in a lot of places. But we still have injustice.
“And every child in an American school deserves to be respected, valued and have an equal opportunity for education,” she said.
The Center casts a wide net in its outreach and addresses educators at all levels. While there’s no specific effort to target higher education, Costello noted that about 15 percent of the subscribers to Teaching Tolerance are professors of education at colleges.
“Higher education discovered us,” she said. “They believe in our core mission, improving education for children and those people may be pre-service, college teachers or people in school now. We support teachers by giving lessons and creating a virtual teacher’s lounge online.”
Brooks said the Center works to identify more contemporary targets of oppression, among them the gay-lesbian-transgendered community, Muslims and immigrants while remaining true to its traditional efforts.
“We will continue to fight hate through identifying hate groups, all kinds of hate groups,” she said. “We will continue to litigate. And we’ll continue the education of the next generation of young people to be tolerant and accepting.
“We’ll continue to strive to build Martin Luther King’s ‘Beloved Community,’ ” she said.
It’s important to educate about what is the reality and not lull ourselves into a false sense of achievement.”