On Friday evening, Summer Institute chairman Bruce Eckman addressed the sold-out crowd gathered at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center with a question.

“What does a LGBT group, Jews, African Americans and prisoners all have in common?” he asked.

The answer? Richard Cohen.

As part of the annual Summer Institute Speaker Series, Mr. Cohen spoke for an hour at the Hebrew Center describing his work as president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The organization is headquartered in Mr. Cohen’s hometown of Montgomery, Al. and operates on three core values: “Fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice,” Mr. Cohen explained.

Mr. Cohen told the crowd that hate crimes and extremist groups have been growing in number. — Mark Alan Lovewell

A lawyer by trade, Mr. Cohen also oversees the center’s division that collects data on hate crimes and extremist groups across the country. According to the SPLC website there are 954 hate groups currently operating in the United States. Mr. Cohen said he and his colleagues watched this number grow when President Trump began his campaign.

“There has been an increase of 20 per cent from the beginning of the campaign to now,” Mr. Cohen said. “The social fabric of our country is being frayed and hate is being normalized.”

Mr. Cohen faulted President Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail for the uptick in extremist groups, adding that the number steadily declined while President Obama held office. But he also recognized that this problem predates the 2016 election.

“There is a common fear amongst the radical right, a fear that has propelled hate groups for the last 20 years,” Mr. Cohen said. “It is a direct response to our country’s changing diversity. Many people feel a sense of cultural displacement.”

Mr. Cohen referenced the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August of last year.

“None of the messages we heard in Charlottesville were new,” Mr. Cohen furthered. “What was new was the size.”

Mr. Cohen acknowledged the power of the internet and social media platforms in emboldening extremists, both in Charlottesville and beyond.

“Andrew Anglin is the publisher of a website called the The Daily Stormer. It’s the most heavily traveled neo-Nazi website in the English language,” Mr. Cohen said. “Anglin is part of the new breed of white supremacists. He is a man with a megaphone because of the internet and he’s influenced millions.”

Following the talk Mr. Cohen participated in a question and answer session with the audience.

“What is the effect of the new technology on the salience and importance of hate groups?” one man inquired.

Mr. Cohen cited Dylann Roof as an example. Mr. Roof killed nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015.

“The internet allows people to connect in a way like never before,” Mr. Cohen said. “As opposed to seeking out a Klansmen meeting, Dylann Roof was holding out in his bedroom on the internet searching for hate groups.”

Another attendee raised concerns about protecting hate speech under the first amendment. Mr. Cohen warned of the slippery slope that comes with censorship, no matter how egregious the content.

“I don’t think we can close any public spaces to the views of anyone in our country,” he said. “Unless there is an eminent call for violence you can’t criminalize it.”

Mr. Cohen concluded the evening with a call for moral clarity and action.

“History is something we collectively make,” Mr. Cohen said. “We are all compelled to heal the world, and not just our own part of it.”

The next speaker in the series will be David S. Cohen with a talk entitled The Power, Promise and Perils of Sanctions: A Comparison of the Iran and North Korea Experiences. The event takes place on August 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hebrew Center, located at 130 Center street in Vineyard Haven.