By Christina Sewell MPA ’21
Margaret Huang MIA ’95 is one of the newest residents of Montgomery, Alabama. Though she began her tenure as CEO and president of the civil rights advocacy organization the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in April 2020, Huang only recently moved from Washington, DC, to the SPLC’s home in Alabama after more than a year of remote work. At the helm of the SPLC, Huang leads the organization’s efforts in combating racial injustice and white supremacy in the South and in strengthening human rights across the country.
Though she may be new to Alabama, Huang is no stranger to the South. While she was growing up as a mixed-race Chinese American girl in the 1970s and ’80s, Huang’s family was one of very few ethnically Asian or people of color households in their East Tennessee town. That lived experience is a significant reason why the SPLC’s mission has long resonated with her.
“It wasn’t necessarily explicit racism that I experienced growing up so much as it was ignorance and subtle discrimination,” she explains. “A lot of the kids at school didn’t understand how to engage with me or why I lived there.”
Now Huang has returned to the South to tackle the roots of race-based hate and extremism across these fragmented United States.
America Gasps for Air
The overlapping crises of 2020 laid bare the United States’ racial and economic disparities. CDC data revealed that communities of color and other vulnerable populations experienced much higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death due to COVID-19, while Black Americans continued to be killed disproportionately by police officers. According to a recent study from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police.
In May 2020 the nation watched in disbelief as Minneapolis resident George Floyd gasped for air in between the words “I can’t breathe” as a white police officer knelt on his neck for over nine minutes. After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in the South, a wave of collective outrage and humanity drew citizens into the streets despite social distancing guidelines, and the summer of 2020 saw the United States’ largest protests for racial justice and civil rights in a generation.
“We saw people across the country acknowledging, ‘Yeah, there is something really, really wrong,’” Huang says. “It’s not just the targeted community of young Black men and women but the whole country acknowledging it.”
Intensifying race relations further, the year also saw alarming spikes across the country of hate crimes targeting the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, particularly Asian American seniors and women. Recent research released by the reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate revealed that nearly 3,800 incidents were reported over the course of roughly a year during the pandemic.
“The spate of violent crimes targeting members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community are yet another demonstration of how hate speech and disinformation have incredibly dangerous consequences,” Huang says. “No individual or community should live in fear of being targeted for who they are.” She recognizes that the wide range of civil rights issues affecting the country today—including hate speech and violence, immigrant justice, criminal justice reform, voting rights, climate justice, and poverty— are connected to the country’s long legacy of structural racism.
“There’s a history here that goes back long before any of us, but it continues to shape all of our most pressing issues today,” she says. “Under President Trump’s tenure, we actually saw a significant increase in the engagement and recruitment of hate groups and a growing hostility of the court system to civil rights challenges.” These are trends that make Huang all the more dedicated to righting the wrongs of our past—and present.
Looking Inward to Change the World
A steely dedication to civil rights was forged in Huang’s early childhood. As the daughter of professors who enjoyed summers off from teaching, she was regularly exposed to life beyond the mountains of her Tennessee hometown. She recalls the family’s cross-country adventures to California and visits to Taiwan and mainland China.
“I had this incredible privilege to visit parts of the world that my friends and my parents’ colleagues had never dreamed of visiting,” she says. “And it really opened my eyes very early to the ways people across the country and around the world live and struggle.”
Her desire to make the world a more just and equitable place would eventually lead her to SIPA, where she immersed herself in the examination of complex international human rights issues.
“Those two years at SIPA were some of the best experiences I had, certainly in preparing me for my career,” she says. “There’s no question that the human rights concentration was small but mighty. My former concentration adviser, Paul Martin, who ran the Center for the Study of Human Rights back then, continues to be a mentor and strong supporter of me and all of my fellow colleagues.”
Those SIPA colleagues include her current friends working in the United Nations, the federal government, and the foundation world and across many other sectors, all of whom Huang credits for making her human rights work stronger today.
She’s grateful, too, for the more unlikely game changers at SIPA. “I took this amazing course on managing nonprofits, and I still use the materials from the course all the time!” she says. “It’s funny, because most of us get into our careers, not because we want to run the organizations, but because we want to have some impact or we share a vision. But classes like that point out all the routine things like the HR policies or the budgetary constraints that you must consider as a leader. It’s been so helpful as I’ve taken on more and more responsibility in my career.”
After graduation Huang went on to work for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, the Asia Foundation, and Amnesty International. Across these esteemed human rights groups, she rose up the ranks to lead campaigns protecting refugees, victims of gun violence, and a range of activist protesters across the globe.
Her focus turned inward, however, following September 11, 2001. “I’d never considered human rights here in the United States before then, but suddenly things I believed were sacred—like a commitment not to torture or use arbitrary detention and surveillance— went out the window,” she says. “That same year, I had the birth of my first child and realized that I didn’t want to be traveling around the world all the time.”
After several years tackling unjust practices in almost every corner of the world except the United States, Huang decided it was time to pivot to a career in domestic issues. Her vast experiences in the field have now propelled her to collaborate with her colleagues at the SPLC to push for the biggest impact on human rights that the organization can achieve.
Hate Will Not Be Overlooked
Huang’s first order of business at the SPLC has been the development of a strategic plan—the first of its kind for the organization— reflecting the group’s new mission, vision, and impact statements. This strategic direction, she says, will help her team better define their highest-level priorities. Their mission is now officially defined as “being a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people.” It’s a tall order, one that Huang smiles with excitement about achieving.
Perhaps the foremost way to get there is by tracking—and shutting down—the activities of hate and extremist groups across the country. The SPLC has helped to stop some of the nation’s most violent groups in recent decades by suing them and winning huge damages that put them out of business. Yet there are still nearly 1,400 groups across the country whose activities have been reenergized in recent years. These include white nationalist groups such as the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates as well as anti-government militias.
“The two categories are distinct,” Huang explains. “The latter are seeking to overthrow the government, whereas white nationalists aim to influence policies and legislation to advance their ideological interests. The January 6 armed insurrection saw the two come together as one, both very much encouraged by former president Trump.”
High numbers of racist and hate activities across the country are historically more typical during Democratic presidential administrations, yet trends around the mobilization of hate groups are evolving with the rise of social media. It led the SPLC to reconsider how it measures the scale and scope of hate in the United States and to put increased pressure on social media giants like Facebook and Twitter for more monitoring and removal of dangerous content on their platforms.
“So far we’ve largely been ignored, along with every other nonprofit that’s been advocating this, but January 6th was a wake-up call for much of the tech world,” she says. “That’s when we finally saw the de-platforming of Trump. But it can’t end there.” If the social media platforms don’t commit to more serious and aggressive monitoring and removal of hate speech soon, Huang says that her team will advocate for increased government regulation of the industry.
She’s already championing the effort to better track the racist and violent activities in another important sector—and finally making progress after the storming of the US Capitol. For three decades the SPLC has urged the secretary of defense and Pentagon officials to reconsider their criteria for who is able to join their ranks and to better monitor the activities of all service members in uniform.
“Time and again we’ve seen an uncomfortable margin of military members involved with white nationalist and other extremist groups,” Huang says. As of early June, current or former military members and police officers made up about 11 percent of total arrests stemming from the January 6 Capitol riot.
In response, the Biden administration and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin—the first Black person to hold that office—ordered a military-wide stand-down in an eff ort to better address white nationalism and other extremism in the US military’s ranks, pausing regular activity to tackle the issue. Th is is only the first step in a long overdue accountability process, says Huang, and one not unique to the armed forces. A similar eff ort, she says, will be required at the FBI, state and local law enforcement agencies, and all security agencies.
There is reason for optimism following the unprecedented arrests and prosecutions of military members following the insurrection.
“The accountability we are seeing today,” Huang says, “sets a new tone that the activities of everyone involved in hate, no matter your service affiliations, will no longer be overlooked.”
Pursuing Large-Scale Change
In addition to tracking hate and rooting it out wherever it festers, Huang recognizes that fundamentally eliminating structural racism and historical inequalities requires a proactive repairing of the symptoms of divisiveness seen across the country.
“We have always done some work to address challenges of poverty, particularly in our states in the South,” she says. “But as part of the SPLC’s new strategic direction, we’re actually making this one of our top priorities. We’re setting up what I hope is a big goal of lifting two million people out of poverty in the South over the next five years.”
Th effort is critical in the fight against the United States’ growing wealth and income inequality, now the highest it has been in the country’s history, according to recent Pew Research Center data. While the productivity of American workers has increased 70 percent since the late 1970s, their average hourly pay has risen less than 12 percent in that same time period. Th is dismal outcome inspired Huang to set the goal for the SPLC to lift two million out of poverty.
“This goal requires us to think differently about strategic interventions that can have a really big impact—not just for a few families or a few children or a community here or there, but for the potential to leverage really big change,” Huang explains. “We aren’t sure how we’re going to do it all yet, but it will definitely involve litigation, communications, narrative development, educational curricula, and public engagement, as well as partnerships with local governments, corporations, and other communities on the ground who have ideas about how to do this. Th is is something we should and must do together.”
Much of the impact of the policy eff orts will be scaled through building alliances with other organizations, both in the South and across the country, including the NAACP and the ACLU. Th e SPLC will work shoulder to shoulder with these groups and local community organizations to mobilize voters, protect voting rights, pursue electoral policy reforms, and bring litigation to challenge unconstitutional and discriminatory voting practices.
“There’s a recognition that this legal and policy work is needed now in the South more than ever,” Huang says. But their work won’t stop with southern states. She’s confident that the group’s vision for human dignity and respect for everyone will spread across the United States.
Huang’s North Star is a quote by scholar and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, who famously wrote: “As the South goes, so goes the nation.” His words suggested the region’s key role in the fight against the violent suppression of Black people during America’s infamous Jim Crow era.
Those words still ring true today, particularly as the South’s citizenry is the country’s fastest growing and arguably most rapidly changing in terms of racial demographics. On issues spanning racial inequality, voting rights, poverty, environmental justice, and more, battles fought there set the tone for the rest of the country and have the potential to shift our trajectory significantly.
“I believe that with the level of activism and grassroots organizing happening here, this is an extraordinary time to lend our efforts to all these social justice movements taking place on issues of poverty, incarceration, white supremacy, infringement on voting rights, and more,” Huang says. “We have to start seeing and supporting the solution in the South, because I know we can show the rest of the country what good governance and progressive realization of human rights can look like.”
Huang’s whole life has prepared her to lead this transformation. Now, with her new community members by her side, she has never been more determined to win this fight.
This story appears in the most recent issue of SIPA Magazine, published in October 2021.