Righteous Dude

Jim McElroy of the Southern Poverty Law Center


Jim McElroy is in the business of being unpopular. Standing up for those whose rights have been not just violated, but decimated, McElroy is not looking for friends. He’s out for justice. And he has the law on his side.

Growing up in conservative Decatur, Ill., during the burgeoning civil rights movement, McElroy ’77 (J.D.) joined a walkout of African-American students at his high school one day to protest a racial incident. The next day, he had to defend himself against the angry shoves of his white friends.

“That was my first experience of being uncomfortable because of my beliefs and opinions, and it may have gotten me over the hump to realizing that being unpopular is not necessarily a bad thing,” says McElroy, who subsequently debated the Ku Klux Klan during meetings at a campus bar while at the University of Illinois in the 1970s.

A decision to create social change through the law, coupled with a desire to live near larger waters than Lake Decatur, led McElroy west to USD’s School of Law. More than 30 years later, from his office overlooking the San Diego Polo Club, McElroy pays his bills practicing general civil litigation but heeds his calling with cases that right injustice, most of which are pro bono.

A serendipitous meeting with civil rights icon Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, led to a personal and professional watershed for McElroy. Dees won a civil prosecution against white supremacist Tom Metzger for his role in the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student in Portland, Ore., and McElroy helped collect as much of the $12.5 million judgment as possible for Seraw’s son, Henock.

While hand delivering the first payment to Henock 15 years ago in Ethiopia, McElroy saw Henock’s meager living conditions and offered to host him for the summer in San Diego. Henock’s mom agreed, and with her approval he has been living with McElroy ever since — joining two other brothers in the family.

Today, McElroy is chair of the SPLC board of directors, a position he holds in addition to running his own practice. His bookcase heavy with awards, he takes pride in rectifying the crimes committed against his clients, such as the black Camp Pendleton Marine who was brutally beaten and left a quadriplegic by white supremacists.

McElroy’s work with the SPLC reveals just how much work is left undone: the organization is tracking 924 hate groups nationally, an increase of 30 percent in the last few years. But still, he is hopeful. The SPLC aims to turn the tide one generation at a time with a Teaching Tolerance program offered free to teachers and schools.

“That keeps me optimistic and passionate that things are going to change,” McElroy says. “There is still going to be racism 30 years from now, but I hope there will be a lot more tolerance and understanding. We are getting a lot more diverse. It’s hard for people to not interact with other races today. It’s my belief that you can’t hate someone you know.” — Trisha J. Ratledge 

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