Social justice advocate speaks on state of hate in the U.S.

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Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., speaks to 225 members of the Liberal Men of the Lowcountry and Liberal Ladies of the Lowcountry on Hilton Head Oct. 25. PHOTO SUBMITTED

There's no doubt that hatred and extremism are alive in the United States and around the world. Bombings, mass shootings and torch rallies are commonplace in our society.

Southern Poverty Law Center community outreach leader Lecia Brooks recently visited Hilton Head Island to speak about those issues at a combined meeting of the Liberal Men of the Lowcountry and the Liberal Ladies of the Lowcountry.

Based in Montgomery, Ala., the SPLC works to fight hate and bigotry, and seeks justice for victims. The organization tracks the activities of hate groups and other domestic extremists and works with schools in an effort to reduce prejudice and promote educational equity.

Liberal Men of the Lowcountry president Richard Hammes said his group makes two annual donations to organizations that members feel make a difference in the community and the nation. This year, they decided to donate to SPLC and the ACLU, "given the election last year and the state of the country on fairness, equality and minority issues," Hammes said.

"We have had the ACLU speak to our group twice in the last couple of years, so I pursued the SPLC for this [meeting]," Hammes said.

Brooks spoke to a crowd of about 225 before being presented with two checks at the liberal groups' Oct. 25 meeting at Hilton Head Island Beach and Tennis Resort.

"Today it's looking a lot like the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s," Brooks said, adding that places of worship are still being bombed, especially mosques.

In her presentation, "Fighting Hate, Teaching Tolerance, Seeking Justice," Brooks spoke about the steady increase in active hate groups in the U.S. between 2000 and 2016. She said the SPLC identified 602 active hate groups in 2000.

According to the SPLC website, as of 2016, there were 917 active hate groups in the U.S., including 12 in South Carolina. Closest in proximity to Beaufort County are a Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan group in Walterboro, a white nationalist group called Patriotic Flags in Charleston and a black separatist Nation of Islam group, also in Charleston.

Brooks also discussed the hatred and bias displayed toward Jews, Muslims and LGBT individuals. In addition to the attacks on mosques, she said Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated across the country.

That, she said, is indicative of the tremendous increase in anti-Semitism domestically and globally.

"It's beyond me why people are not more upset about this," Brooks said. "When people move to desecrate cemeteries, the most sacred place, and they are not caught, we are living in troubled times."

Brooks said more evidence of anti-Semitism began to surface after the 2016 presidential election."We've never seen this before," Brooks said. "Never has our country seen such a tremendous uptick in bias- or hate-related incidents than right after the election."

Because of that increase, the SPLC launched a web portal and asked the public in early November 2016 to report hate- and bias-related incidents on the organization's website.

Within 10 days, SPLC had been alerted to nearly 1,000 of these incidents.

Brooks said SPLC looked at data between Nov. 9, 2016, and March 31 to try to understand what was happening. The number one primary motivation behind the incidents was anti-immigrant sentiment, Brooks said, adding that anti-black sentiment came in as number two.

Brooks said the organization shares the data they collect with law enforcement officials, public officials, policy makers, educators and others.

"We hope to influence policy decisions that push back against hate and intolerance," Brooks said.

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.

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