Civil rights attorney Morris S. Dees, Jr. (born 1936) used the rule of law to fight against hate groups in the United States.
In the quarter of a century following the death of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, there was an alarming rise in the number of hate groups and hate crimes in America. By 1994 it was estimated that there were over 250 hate groups across the United States, including the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, and Christian Identity Movement, to name only a few of the most violent. Combatting these groups effectively was extremely difficult, since the very freedoms cherished in U.S. democracy, including and especially freedom of speech, allow bigots to spread their hateful ideas with little fear of prosecution by authorities.
One man made a stand against all of that. Morris S. Dees, Jr., a native of the deep South, led an innovative and effective campaign against America's most dangerous purveyors of hate by using the rule of law to put them out of business.
There is little in Dees' early biography that would hint of his later emergence as a crusader for the rights of minorities. He was born in 1936 in Shorter, Alabama, the son of a farmer and cotton gin operator. The South of his early youth provided equality for African Americans in theory only. Public schools and private institutions were segregated and most African Americans were eking out a living below the poverty line. In rural areas many lived on the land as sharecroppers, in effect little more than indentured servants to white landlords. There were few white citizens who ever questioned a system that rarely protected the rights of African Americans or provided them with opportunities to improve their economic status. Some, like Dees' uncle Lucien, were avowed racists. Others, while not fighting the status quo, still maintained a basic respect for their African American neighbors. Dees' father was such a man. He once took a belt to the young Dees when the teen called a worker a "Black nigger."
Originally, Morris Dees saw his future on the land; indeed, he was named the "star farmer" of Alabama in 1955. But his innovative business acumen would lead him on a different course. While an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, he founded a nationwide direct mail sales company that specialized in book publishing. He did not know it then, but Dees had not only discovered a way to secure his financial future, but a new way to communicate ideas directly to millions of Americans. In 1960 he graduated from the University of Alabama Law School, opened a law office in Montgomery, and continued to develop his direct mail business. Sales would reach $15 million, and eventually he sold his business to the Times-Mirror Corporation.
As Dees grew professionally, he and many other Southerners began to be deeply affected by the emerging civil rights movement of the 1960s. He decided to apply his legal knowledge to aid minorities in the courts. His most notable achievement was a 1968 lawsuit he filed that successfully led to the integration of the all-white Montgomery Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA).
In 1971 Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, which engaged in civil lawsuits ranging from defending an African American female inmate in a North Carolina jail to the integration of the Alabama state troopers. Utilizing direct mail, Dees eventually won the financial support of some 300,000 Americans, which enabled the center to pursue critically important but highly unpopular civil rights cases. Throughout, Dees and his colleagues exhibited great courage in standing up for unpopular and powerless clients. But armed with the truth and a belief in the ultimate fairness of the American justice system, they prevailed against the odds.
In 1980 Dees founded Klanwatch as a direct response to resurgence of the virulently anti-African American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and related groups. In more than one instance, violent leaders of the Klan and the White Patriot Party planned to assassinate Dees. Combining great personal heroism and an aggressive use of the law, the Klanwatch struck telling blows against some of America's most dangerous hate groups.
In 1981 a Klan leader, Louis Beam, led a group of renegade American fishermen who sought to block immigrant Vietnamese fishermen from operating in the waters near Galveston, Texas. The new Americans were scared by the terror tactics of boat burnings and threats of physical violence and were on the verge of giving up their livelihoods when the law center entered the picture and successfully sued the Texas Knights of the KKK.
In his native Alabama, Dees successfully used the courts to sue the Klan. Not only were Klan leaders convicted of breaking the law, they were stripped of their assets and left virtually penniless. In one case, a unique aspect of the court-imposed settlement mandated that the leader of the racist assaults was required to attend a Brotherhood seminar convened by the husband of an African American woman who was the target of their attack. In Georgia, Klansmen had to pay $100,000 to their intended victims and their office equipment was transferred to the Raleigh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1984 Dees won a $7 million lawsuit against the United Klan following the lynching of an African American man by Klansmen. The suit forced the United Klan of America out of business.
The White Patriot Party, a paramilitary off-shoot of the KKK, had by the early 1980s some two thousand members who terrorized minorities in the Carolinas and Virginia. Some of the followers were actually active members in the United States Armed Forces. In 1985 legal action by Klanwatch against the group's leader, Glen Miller, led to the uncovering of thousands of dollars worth of explosives, including rockets stolen from the military, which were destined to be used in a "race war." Later, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raid thwarted an assassination plot by Miller and his followers to kill Dees. As a result of the legal steps brought against them, the White Patriot Party no longer exists.
The legal and social basis of Dees' crusade can be shown in his summation before a Mobile, Alabama, court in 1987: "I do not want you to come back with a verdict against the Klan because they have unpopular beliefs. In this country you have the right to have unpopular beliefs just as long as you don't turn those beliefs into violent actions that interfere with someone else's rights. … But they put a rope around Michael MacDonald's neck and treated him to an actual death … so they could get out their message. … You have an opportunity to send a different message that will ring out all over Alabama and all over the United States: That an all white jury from the heart of the South will not tolerate racial violence in any way, shape or form. …." The jury found for the African American plaintiff and fixed damages at $7 million.
In the Southern Poverty Law Center's first quarter century the largest amount awarded by a court to the heirs and victims of a racist murder was the 1988 decision in Oregon to assess damages of $12 million against White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger. His skinhead followers had murdered an Ethiopian immigrant. Obviously, money cannot compensate for murder and mayhem, but Dees had a remarkable track record in using the American justice system to financially bankrupt the groups and hate mongers who strove to promote racism in the United States.
Dees was honored by many groups and institutions. He received the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association. The American Civil Liberties Union presented him with the Roger Bladwin Award, and he was named the Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. He earned a reputation as a respected speaker and was asked to deliver the Ralph Fuchs lecture at Indiana University School of Law in 1996. He collaborated with James Corcoran to publish a chilling account of the militia groups in 1996. The book, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat, makes a strong case for the common thread which appeared to unravel from Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992, to Waco, Texas in 1993, to Oklahoma City in 1995.
Further Reading on Morris S. Dees Jr
Two of the most important sources of information on Morris S. Dees, Jr., are books he co-authored with Steve Fiffer: A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees (1991) and Hate On Trial: The Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi (1993). Dees also co-authored with James Corcoran a book about militia groups, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat (Harper Collins, 1996). Information on hate groups, chiefly the KKK, can be found in Robert P. Ingalls, Hoods: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan (1979); Andy Oakley, "88": An Undercover News Reporter's Expose of American Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (1987); Craig Wyn Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (1987); Susan S. Lang, Extremist Groups in America (1990); James Ridgeway, Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture (1990); and Bill Stanton, Klanwatch: Bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Justice (1991). See also Klanwatch Intelligence Report: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Poverty Law Center, 1981 to present, a bimonthly.