Raised in a small farming community, Morris Dees learned about racial injustice firsthand when sent by his father to speak for a black worker on his farm who had been arrested. In spite of what seemed to be clearly exculpatory circumstances, the judge, after paying little attention to the defendant’s case, imposed a stiff fine. Then, after an all-white jury quickly acquitted both defendants following the Emmet Till murder in 1955, Mr. Dees wrote a letter to a newspaper in which he said that, even if one believes in segregation, no one should be punished without first being tried and convicted. The letter was published and Mr. Dees received a threat from the Ku Klux Klan. After graduating from law school in 1960, Mr. Dees and fellow Alabaman Millard Fuller, who later founded Habitat for Humanity, established a publishing firm and began practicing law part-time. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Dees bought out Fuller’s interest in the publishing firm and began taking on an increasing number of significant civil rights cases. In 1970, he gave up his lucrative business career altogether and founded the Southern Poverty Law Center the following year. His victory in Smith v. YMCA resulted in the court-ordered integration of the all-white Montgomery, Alabama, YMCA, along with efforts to disbar him. He succeeded in integrating, on a one-to-one ratio, the Alabama State Troopers, the same entity that had beaten civil rights activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. His efforts also forced the redistricting of the Alabama legislature, which enabled black voters to participate at last in the political process.
In the late 1970s, in response to an alarming increase in white supremacist activity, Dees made combating extremism one of his priorities. After a young black student was lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1981, Dees filed a civil suit on behalf of the victim’s family and named as a defendant the United Klans of America, the same hate group that had blown up Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young black girls. The resulting $7 million verdict bankrupted the Klan and led to a string of lawsuits against other hate groups. To keep young people from coming under the influence of hate groups, Dees created the Teaching Tolerance project in 1992, providing teachers with free educational tools to help them instill in their students an appreciation of diversity and democratic values.
Although race was his primary focus, Mr. Dees has taken on other human rights issues as well. He and his organization have challenged the death penalty in Alabama and improved conditions in that state’s prisons and mental health facilities. A current focus is the plight of recent immigrants. The Center has recently brought a number of class actions against employers who violate the human rights of these workers and has issued major reports detailing the conditions faced by guest workers and other low-wage immigrants. Mr. Dees notes that when the Southern Poverty Law Center was founded, minorities made up less than one-fifth of the population of the country. Today, that figure has doubled and, by 2050, what we call the majority will be the minority. According to Mr. Dees, an increasing fear of “the other” that is due to these changing demographics and the election of President Obama explains the 60 percent increase in the number of hate groups over the last decade.
The author of three books, Mr. Dees has been honored by organizations such as the American Bar Association, the NEA, Common Cause and the ACLU. Two thousand people from all over the United States attended the 40th anniversary celebration of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Center, which began with a staff of three in Montgomery, Alabama, today has a staff of 175, including 32 lawyers, and offices in five Southern states.