Fighting Nazis for a Living

How growing up in the South during the 1960s and 1970s influenced Richard Cohen’s trajectory as a lawyer

An illustration of Richard Cohen
Southern Poverty Law Center / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In 1970, crosstown busing came to Richmond, Virginia. Richard Cohen, then only a teenager, persuaded his parents to let him attend an integrated public school instead of private school. He ended up leaving high school a year early to begin college at Columbia University, where he studied philosophy.

Cohen, now the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, worked in private law for seven years before starting at the SPLC as its legal director. He’s worked at the organization for more than half of his life. I spoke to Cohen recently about his career trajectory and how watching the 1968 Democratic National Convention as a 13-year-old changed him. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Lola Fadulu: Could you tell me about your parents and their jobs?

Richard Cohen: My father ran an interior-decorating firm, and my mother was a legal secretary. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I was born about seven months after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and I went to public schools in Richmond.

In 1970, the beginning of my sophomore year in high school, massive crosstown busing came to Richmond. They had been operating basically under a freedom-of-choice or a districting plan, but it was proving inadequate to desegregate the schools, and a very famous judge ordered crosstown busing. Now, there were a lot of people in the white community who abandoned the public schools. They moved out of the city or put their kids in private schools. My parents were really pushing me to go to a private school, and I just basically said no, and made a couple of speeches in that day to Jewish groups about the importance of staying with the public schools. Sometimes I wonder, when I look back on it, whether that was out of principle or whether it was a product of youthful belligerence. Then I left high school a year early, and then went off to college, and then into law school back in Virginia.

Fadulu: Why did your parents want you to go to private school?

Cohen: I don’t think my parents were racist people. I just think they thought, “Gosh, Richard’s a smart kid. The situation in the public schools seems uncertain, and we want to make sure he gets the best education he can. And we just don’t know what’s going on in the public schools, because of a lot of change and disruption.” So I think those were the basic reasons. I didn’t think of it as a particularly racist thing, although I just think they were concerned about how the school system was working. In the end, we argued and they relented, and I’m so glad they did.

Fadulu: How was public school for you?

Cohen: My school before that had been integrated, but had been predominantly white. My public school, by the time I was in my junior year, was probably predominantly black.

Fadulu: What was it like for you to be in the minority, as a white student?

Cohen: I don’t know if I thought about it so much as a young person. These were my classmates. These were people I knew. These were people who I smoked cigarettes in the back of the school with and things like that. So I don’t want to describe it as kind of nirvana or anything like that, but it was a different experience than I think some people had.

You know, we’re at the 50th anniversary this month of the 1968 Democratic convention. That convention was, I think, in some sense a coming-of-age moment for me. That was the convention in Chicago. Dr. King had been killed. Robert Kennedy had been killed, and the 1968 convention was a very tumultuous time. Mayor Daley is cursing at speakers from the front row of the convention. The police are rioting in the streets.

In that entire time, there were two people who stood out at the convention as kind of voices of sanity: A guy named Jesse Unruh, who was the head of the California delegation, and the other person, of course, was Julian Bond. Julian was, I think, 28 years old at the time, but he spoke with such moral force that at the convention, someone placed his name into nomination for the vice presidency of the United States. It was largely a symbolic act, because Julian was too young to be the vice president of the United States. But the nomination, of course, though symbolic, was a reflection of Julian’s stature. Three years after that, Julian helped to found the Southern Poverty Law Center. When I came here in 1986, he became a great friend. I don’t find it completely coincidental that I’m here.

That was a really important moment for me. It was really the first time I had watched a political convention, and the first time that I think I paid a lot of attention to and was excited about politics and civil rights and issues of fairness.

Fadulu: How old were you at that time?

Cohen: Thirteen.

Fadulu: Wow.

Cohen: I went to college at Columbia, and then I came back to Virginia to go to law school. I think my law-school tuition was $1,000 a year as an in-state student, which was one of the world’s most incredible deals. And I practiced law for about seven years in Washington, D.C., with a very famous civil-rights lawyer, although some people might think that we were on the wrong side of certain cases. His name was Charles Morgan. He actually represented Julian when the Georgia legislature refused to seat Julian because of his stance against the Vietnam War. He represented Muhammad Ali in the lower courts when Ali was being prosecuted for so-called draft evasion. He argued a lot of early civil-rights cases, such as Reynolds v. Sims, a case well known for establishing the principle of “one man, one vote.”

I practiced law with them for about seven years. Julian was friends with people in the firm. Then, frankly, I got a little bored doing that, too. In 1986, I found the job of my dreams as the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. We were a very small organization at the time. I think we had 25 people in a single location. Today we have 300 in 10, and I never expected to be here for all this time. I’ve been here for 32 years now. In fact, I’ve been here more than half my life; I’m 63.

It’s been a remarkable experience. I think all honest work is useful. It helps make the world go round. Right now I’m looking out of our building. I see a big bank tower, and I mean, I think it’s important that our financial institutions be secure, that the legal system be predictable so people can rely on the contracts that they make with people. So I think the work that they do at that bank is important. But it’s probably not the kind of work that touches their souls. The banker might be interested in his work, might get some satisfaction from it, but I think it’s rare that you find a job that expresses your values and touches your soul, and that’s one of the great privileges I have, doing what I do.

Fadulu: Rewind a bit. You said you were practicing law for seven years and then you got bored and you moved to be the legal director. How did you decide to act on that boredom and find a new job?

Cohen: When I was in private practice, we had some very big cases that were very interesting to me. Those were kind of over at one point. I don’t want to name the company, but it came to see us to try to help them out of a jam they were in. I did some research about the company, just some background, and I did not particularly want to represent them. They would have paid us well and all that, but they had a little bit of a history of anti-Semitism. The case that they wanted us to deal with, it wasn’t a case of discrimination. It was simply a commercial dispute. But I just didn’t want to do it.

And so I started talking to some of my colleagues. I took a walk in Lafayette Park across from the White House with Joe Levin. Joe had practiced law with me for a while in Washington. He had gone off to a different firm by the time we had that walk. He told me about the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that he had helped to co-found with Morris Dees and Julian Bond in 1971. He said that the organization was looking for a new legal director, and he thought I ought to at least give it some thought and talk to Morris about it, and that’s what I did.

Fadulu: Did you have any jobs before college?

Cohen: My first-ever job was probably working for my father in his warehouse, the warehouse at his store, unloading trucks and putting cans of paint away. That was probably the first thing I ever did. And working on the delivery truck to deliver supplies to construction sites and people who were building homes.

Fadulu: Did you like it?

Cohen: I was 14. I appreciated earning a little money. The people who I worked with were good folk with a sense of humor. Yeah, I was the boss’s kid, so maybe they didn’t give me as hard a time as they could have, but it was fun. I worked hard. You would get deliveries of paint. Paint comes in four-gallon sleeves and five-gallon cans. In some ways, it was backbreaking work. I’d put hundreds of those things away over the course of the day, so it was hard work.

Fadulu: Did you learn anything from those jobs that became part of the way you approach work?

Cohen: I don’t know if I learned anything there that I didn’t learn in school just as a good student. I had an interesting teacher in the 11th grade for civics. I took the course for advanced credit. And in order to get that, I had to read Supreme Court cases and outline them. I read lots of Supreme Court cases in my junior year.

Fadulu: Can you tell me some of the highlights of your career, things that stand out to you?

Cohen: In the first summer that I was here in 1986, Morris [Dees] and I were appointed as special U.S. attorneys to prosecute two Klansmen for contempt of court. What had happened was we had secured a consent decree with them basically saying they could not operate a private army. This was a guy named Glenn Miller. He later killed two or three people in Overland Park, Kansas. None of the people he killed were Jewish, but he thought they were.

We didn’t know this at the time, but while we were trying the case, they had actually staked out the home of our local counsel, intending to kill us if we showed up. Glenn Miller went underground and declared war on the country and offered a bounty on Morris’s head. Then some of his people were arrested in connection with the plot to blow up our building. So being involved in a case with people like that was scary and memorable.

Over the years we’ve sued a number of neo-Nazi and other hate groups for the violence of their members. And for us, when we see now the kind of hate in the mainstream, when we see things like Charlottesville, it just tells us that our work is not done.