Recapping a conversation on civil rights

“What was your first experience of prejudice?”

That was the question posed by representatives of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) at a dinner held at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights on Feb. 22.

One participant described his terror listening to a sermon in his church that predicted that homosexuals were going to hell. Only nine years old at the time, the participant already knew he was gay.

An African American woman remembered being shaken to the core by a speeding vehicle directed at her. The white driver slowed down only long enough to hurl a racial epithet at her.

Cleveland native Jason Jaffery, who relocated to Montgomery, Ala. to take his dream job working for SPLC, facilitated the conversation, assisted by SPLC attorney Tiffanie Purvis. Cleveland Heights resident Ernie Cahoon hosted the evening.

Virtually all of the attendees came of age during the Civil Rights era. What they shared in common was their support of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the storied civil rights organization, founded in 1971 by lawyers Morris Dees, who still heads the organization, and Joseph Levin Jr.

SPLC is perhaps best known for winning a court victory in 1987 against the Ku Klux Klan for the lynching of 19-year-old Michael Donald. As part of the historic $7 million verdict, the Klan was forced to turn over the keys to its headquarters to the mother of the victim.

The victory also marked the end of the KKK group responsible for, among other things, the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

Four major programs comprise the cornerstones of SPLC:      

  • Fighting hate by monitoring hate groups and other extremists throughout the United States;
  • Teaching tolerance in schools for today’s children by providing resources and publishing Teaching Tolerance magazine;
  • Seeking justice through the courts for the most vulnerable people in our society, with a legal staff of more than 100 lawyers and advocates; and
  • Maintaining the Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

Participants agreed that the work of SPLC is still relevant—perhaps even more in today’s hyper-partisan political climate.

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Jessica Schreiber

Jessica Schreiber is a retired attorney and former FutureHeights board member. She also served on board of Home Repair Resource Center.

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Volume 11, Issue 4, Posted 9:15 AM, 03.30.2018