Morris Dees and Rosa Parks Social justice and civil rights activist Morris Dees (1936- ) is the co-founder and former director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), headquartered in Montgomery. Since its founding in 1971, the institution, under Dees’s leadership, has pursued some of the most successful campaigns against racial intolerance, hate crimes, and hate groups in the world. Dees has worked with Democratic Party presidential candidates and has authored numerous books on civil rights and hate groups. He was removed as director in March 2019 over unspecified allegations of misconduct.
Morris Seligman Dees Jr. was born on December 16, 1936, in Shorter, Macon County, to Morris Seligman Dees and Annie Ruth Dees. He received his law degree from University of Alabama School of Law in 1960, during a period in the state’s history that had recently included the Montgomery bus boycott and was in the midst of a brewing civil rights crisis. After his graduation from law school, Dees returned to Montgomery, opened a law office, and established a successful book publishing company.
Morris Dees and Joe Levin As the events of the civil rights movement unfolded, Dees became more interested in participating. He was inspired by the words and actions of Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he shared a similar biblically driven spirit for social justice. In 1967, in a snow-bound airport in Cincinnati, Dees had an epiphany after picking up and reading The Story of My Life, the autobiography of Clarence Darrow, a lawyer renowned for his role in major civil liberties cases. In that same year, he and civil rights attorney Fred Gray filed a lawsuit to prevent the establishment of Auburn University at Montgomery. The men argued that the school would only reinforce the already existing segregation in the city’s schools and would negatively affect the operation of Alabama State University, a historically black college in the city. Dees successfully sued to integrate the city of Montgomery’s all-white YMCA in the 1969 Smith v. YMCA case, decided in 1972. Within that same year, he sold his book company to the Times-Mirror Company, and in 1971 with Joe Levin co-founded SPLC in Montgomery. Their firm would charge people who could afford to pay and offer their services free to those who could not. They would support their pro bono work with the money from their paying clients. Civil rights leader Julian Bond was named as its honorary president, serving as the recognizable public face of the organization. The SPLC was established as a private non-profit public interest organization designed to give legal representation to individuals and bring class-action lawsuits against perpetrators of racial discrimination.
In 1974, SPLC, under Dees’s guidance, assisted in the successful defense of Joan (also known as Jo Ann) Little, an African American woman who killed her white jailer and accused rapist, Clarence Alligood, in North Carolina. In 1981, after 19-year-old African American Michael Donald was lynched by a group of white men associated with the Ku Klux Klan, SPLC represented Donald’s mother, Beaulah Mae Donald, in a civil suit against the organization. Donald won a $7 million liability against the United Klan of America that forced the organization, long listed as a hate group by the SPLC, into bankruptcy. In 1983, Dees’s law office was set ablaze. SPLC continued to bring successful lawsuits against other white supremacist organizations, including a $12 million judgment against the White Aryan Resistance Movement in 1991 for inciting the beating death of a black student in Portland, Oregon, in 1988. Consequently, Dees became a target of hate groups and received death threats.
Dees’s work for social justice has extended into politics. In 1972, he served as the financial director for Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. Dees raised more than $24 million in small donations from 600,000 individuals. This was the first time a presidential campaign had been financed with small gifts via mail. In 1976, Dees served as President Jimmy Carter’s national financial director and was national finance chairman for Senator Ted Kennedy’s 1980 Democratic presidential campaign.
Southern Poverty Law Center In honor of his unwavering fight for social justice for the poor and minorities, Dees received recognition from the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice as the Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987. The American Bar Association honored him with the Young Lawyers’ Distinguished Service Award, and he also has received the American Civil Liberties Union’s Roger Baldwin Award. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association was awarded to him in 1990. He received the Humanitarian Award from the University of Alabama in 1993 and the National Education Association’s Friend of Education Award in 2001. Dees speaks at numerous colleges, associations, and organizations and thus far has been awarded at least 25 honorary degrees. In 2006, the University of Alabama School of Law and Skadden and Affiliates law firm established the Morris Dees Justice Award, an annual honor for a lawyer who has been especially notable in addressing social justice issues. The American Bar Association awarded Dees its highest honor, the ABA Medal, in 2012 for his leadership and service as a civil rights attorney.
Dees has authored (with Steve Fiffer) his biography, A Season for Justice (1991) and also Hate on Trial: A Case Against America’s Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi (1993). His Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat (1996) detailed the $12.5 million judgment against Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance and publicized the threat of home-grown terrorism in America. In 1991, a television movie entitled Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story depicted Dees’s battle against hate groups. The SPLC maintains Klan-watch to monitor hate groups and has an active publishing and informational program. In 2019, the SPLC fired Dees but gave no reasons for the dismissal, although reports of racial discrimination and sexual harassment later surfaced.
Dees, Morris, and Steve Fiffer. A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1991.