Morris Seligman Dees Jr. (born December 16, 1936) is an American
attorney who is the co-founder and chief trial counsel for the
Southern Poverty Law Center
Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and a former market engineer for
book publishing. Along with his law partner, Joseph J. Levin Jr.,
Dees founded the SPLC in 1971. Dees and his colleagues at the
Southern Poverty Law Center
Southern Poverty Law Center have been "credited with devising
innovative ways to cripple hate groups" such as the Ku Klux Klan.
1 Early life
2 Marketing career
3 Civil rights legal practice
4 Civil lawsuit strategy
6 Target of violence
7 Political activity
8 Awards and recognition
9 Media appearances
13 External links
Dees was born in 1936 in Shorter, Alabama, the son of Annie Ruth
(Frazer) and Morris Seligman Dees, Sr., tenant cotton farmers.
His family was Baptist. His father was named "Morris Seligman"
after a Jewish friend of Dees's grandfather. After graduating magna
cum laude from the
University of Alabama School of Law
University of Alabama School of Law in 1960, he
Montgomery, Alabama and opened a law office.
He ran a book publishing business, Fuller & Dees Marketing Group.
After what Dees described in his autobiography as "a night of soul
searching at a snowed-in
Cincinnati airport" in 1967, he sold the
company in 1969 to Times Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles
Times. He used the revenue generated by the sale to found the Southern
Poverty Law Center in 1971. Dees's former partner Millard Fuller
Habitat for Humanity International
Habitat for Humanity International in 1976 and served in
executive roles until 2005.
Civil rights legal practice
In his 1991 autobiography Dees wrote that in 1962 he represented
Ku Klux Klan
Ku Klux Klan member Claude Henley who faced Federal charges for
Freedom Riders in an incident documented by a Life magazine
photographer. When Dees learned that another lawyer had asked for
$15,000 to represent Henley, Dees offered to do the job for $5,000,
roughly the median household salary in America at the time. Dees's
defense helped Henley earn an acquittal. But Dees said he later
experienced an "epiphany" and regretted his defense of Henley.
In 1969, prior to the founding of the SPLC, Dees sued the Young Men's
Christian Association (YMCA) in
Montgomery, Alabama at the request of
civil rights activist Mary Louise Smith, whose son Vincent and nephew
Edward had been refused admission to attend a YMCA summer
camp. The YMCA, being a private organization, was presumptively
not bound by the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which
would have forbidden them to discriminate against children on the
basis of race. However, Dees discovered that, in order to avoid
desegregating its recreational facilities, the city of Montgomery
had instead signed a secret agreement with the YMCA to operate them as
private facilities but on the city's behalf. This led the trial
court to rule that the YMCA had a "municipal charter" and was
therefore bound by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States
Constitution to desegregate its facilities. According to historian
Timothy Minchin, Dees was "emboldened by this victory" when he founded
the SPLC in 1971. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth
Circuit(α) later affirmed the trial judge's finding, reversing only
his order that the YMCA use affirmative action to racially integrate
its board of directors.
Civil lawsuit strategy
Dees was one of the principal architects of an innovative strategy
that entailed using civil lawsuits in order to secure a court judgment
for monetary damages against an organization for a wrongful act and
then using the courts to seize its assets (money, land, buildings,
other property) to pay the judgment.
SPLC lawyers used this legal strategy to hold different factions of
Ku Klux Klan
Ku Klux Klan accountable for the actions of their members. In
1981, Dees successfully sued the
United Klans of America
United Klans of America and won a $7
million judgment for the mother of Michael Donald, a black lynching
victim in Alabama. Payment of the judgment bankrupted the
United Klans of America
United Klans of America and resulted in its national headquarters
being sold to help satisfy the judgment. All funds secured in this
manner were paid to the family of the deceased.
A decade later, in 1991, Dees obtained a judgment of $12 million
against Tom Metzger's White Aryan Resistance. He was also
instrumental in securing a $6.5 million judgment against the Aryan
Nations in 2001. Dees's most famous cases have involved landmark
damage awards that have driven several prominent neo-Nazi groups into
bankruptcy, effectively causing them to disband and re-organize under
different names and different leaders.
Dees' critics have included the Montgomery Advertiser, which has
portrayed his work with the SPLC as self-promotional, contending that
Dees exaggerates the threat of hate groups. A 2000 article by Ken
Harper's Magazine alleged that Dees kept the SPLC
focused on fighting anti-minority groups like the KKK, instead of
focusing on issues like homelessness, mostly because of the greater
fundraising potential of the former. The article also claimed that the
SPLC "spends twice as much on fund-raising – $5.76 million last year
– as it does on legal services for victims of civil rights
abuses." Stephen Bright, an Atlanta-based civil rights attorney
and president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote in 2007
that Dees was "a con man and fraud", who "has taken advantage of
naive, well-meaning people – some of moderate or low incomes – who
believe his pitches and give to his $175-million operation." These
comments were made after a controversy pitting Dees against much of
the Civil Rights community in his support of the nomination of Edward
E. Carnes to be a Federal appeals court judge. Carnes was a well known
proponent of the death penalty.
Target of violence
Dees's legal actions against racial nationalist groups have made him a
target of many of these organizations. He has received numerous death
threats from some of these groups. In 2007 Dees said that over 30
people had been jailed in connection with plots to either kill Dees or
blow up the center. A July 29, 2007, letter allegedly came from
Hal Turner, a radio talk show host, paid FBI informant and white
supremacist, after the SPLC filed a lawsuit against the Imperial Klans
of America (IKA) in Meade County, Kentucky. During the IKA trial a
former member of the IKA said that the Klan head told him to kill
Morris Dees and William F. McMurry represented the plaintiff
in the trial against the IKA in November 2008.
Dees started off in politics by working for Southern politician George
Wallace in 1958. He served as Senator George McGovern's national
finance director in 1972, President Jimmy Carter's national
finance director in 1976, and as national finance chairman for Senator
Ted Kennedy's 1980 Democratic primary presidential campaign against
Carter. Dees ran for the board of the
Sierra Club as a protest
candidate in 2004, qualifying by petition.
Awards and recognition
In 2006, the law firm of
Skadden Arps partnered with the University of
Alabama School of Law to create the
Morris Dees Justice Award in honor
of Dees, an Alabama graduate. The award is given annually to a lawyer
who has "devoted his or her career to serving the public interest and
pursuing justice, and whose work has brought positive change in the
community, state or nation". The
American Bar Association
American Bar Association awarded
Dees the ABA Medal, the association's highest honor, during a meeting
of the ABA House of Delegates on August 7, 2012. In addition, on
March 4, 2016 Dees received the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent
Peace Prize, the highest award given by the King Center for Nonviolent
Social Change. The award recognizes Dees' achievements in fighting
racism and his commitment to nonviolence.
Over the last several years, Dees has presented numerous lectures on
civil rights and justice at universities. In 2009, he was
the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony for San Francisco State
University. He was identified as a Freedom hero by The My Hero
The story of Dees's campaigns against white supremacist hate groups
was dramatized in a 1991
TV movie entitled Line of Fire: The Morris
The Dees 1991 autobiography A Season for Justice was updated in 2003
with new material about his case against the
Aryan Nations in Idaho
and reissued as A Lawyer's Journey: The
Morris Dees Story in a
biographical series published by the American Bar Association.
Dees's work was featured on the National Geographic's Inside American
Terror in 2008.
Dees, Morris and Steve Fiffer (2003). A Lawyer's Journey: The Morris
Dees Story. Chicago: American Bar Association.
Dees, Morris (1997). Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat. Harper
Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092789-5.
Dees, Morris, and Steve Fiffer. (1993) Hate on Trial: The Case Against
America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi. New York: Villard Books.
Dees, Morris; Steve Fiffer (1991). A Season for Justice: The Life and
Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees. New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons. ISBN 0-684-19189-X.
Morris Dees Biography". Southern Poverty Law Center.
2009. Archived from the original on 2009-02-06. Retrieved
^ a b "Attorney
Morris Dees pioneer in using 'damage litigation' to
fight hate groups". CNN. September 8, 2000. Archived from the original
on 2007-12-23. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
^ Dees, Morris, and Steve Fiffer. 1991. A Season For Justice. New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, pp. 132–33. ISBN 0-684-19189-X
^ a b Sack, Kevin (12 May 1996). "A Son of Alabama Takes On Americans
Who Live to Hate". The New York Times.
^ Monroe, Carla R. "
Morris Dees biography – American civil rights
lawyer". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2017-04-24.
^ "Morris Dees: Biography: Family History and Childhood".
Learntoquestion.com. Retrieved 2015-08-01.
^ "People's Lawyers: Crusaders for Justice in American History –
Diana Klebanow, Franklin L. Jonas". Books.google.ca. Retrieved
^ Legends. University of Alabama. Accessed 24 April 2017
^ Kent, Francis B (December 14, 1975). "Poverty Law Center Scores in
South". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
^ Dees, Morris (1991). A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of
Civil Rights Lawyer
Morris Dees (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
ISBN 978-0-671-77875-0, pp. 84–85
^ Dees and Fiffer (1991) p. 108
^ a b Robert Heinrich (2008). Montgomery: The Civil Rights Movement
and Its Legacies. Ph.D. dissertation. Brandeis University.
p. 260. ISBN 978-0-549-69927-9.
^ YMCA desegregation ruling turns 40, The Louisiana Weekly, July 26,
2010. Retrieved December 9, 2010; URL replaced with version archived
December 20, 2010.
^ a b c Timothy Minchin (March 25, 2011). After the Dream: Black and
White Southerners since 1965. University Press of Kentucky.
p. 68. ISBN 0-8131-2988-5.
^ Paul Finkelman (October 10, 2006). Encyclopedia of American Civil
Liberties. Taylor & Francis. p. 4836.
ISBN 978-1-135-94704-0. Retrieved May 6, 2015.
^ Dees and Fiffer (1991) p. 125
^ a b Andrea Stone, "Morris Dees: At the Center of the Racial Storm,"
USA Today, 3 August 1996, A-7.
^ "The Nation Klan Must Pay $7 Million". Los Angeles Times. 13
February 1987. Retrieved 2007-09-18.
^ The church of Morris Dees: How the Southern Poverty Law Center
profits from intolerance, Ken Silverstein, 'Harper's Magazine,
^ The Southern Poverty Business Model, Ken Silverstein, Harper's
Magazine blog, November 2, 2007
^ Smothers, Ronald (September 9, 1992). "Judicial Nomination Sunders
Old Allies". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 December 2016.
^ "Group is accused of plotting assassinations, bombings. 2 others
will plead guilty Thursday."
St Louis Post-Dispatch
St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) (May 13,
^ a b Klass, Kym (17 August 2007). "
Southern Poverty Law Center
Southern Poverty Law Center beefs
up security". Montgomery Advertiser. Archived from the original on
2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-09-18.
^ "Former member: Ky. Klan plotted to kill attorney". Associated
Press. 13 November 2008. Retrieved 2007-09-18. [dead link]
^ "Jordan Gruver v. Imperial Klans of America". Southern Poverty Law
Center. Retrieved 18 September 2012.
^ Bill Morlin (26 January 1999). "Targeted by hate groups, Dees also
has their number". The Spokesman-Review. p. A4.
^ Stone, Andrea (1996-08-03). "Morris Dees: At center of the racial
storm". USA Today. access-date= requires url= (help)
^ Shogan, Robert (October 28, 1979). "Kennedy to Tell Candidacy Prior
to Thanksgiving". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2007-07-17.
^ "Morris Dees'
Sierra Club candidate statement seeks tolerance".
Southern Poverty Law Center. January 22, 2004. Retrieved
^ "About the Award", The
Morris Dees Justice Award, University of
Alabama School of Law. 2007. "Archived copy". Archived from the
original on August 10, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-19. CS1 maint:
BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
^ Weiss, Debra Cassens (August 7, 2012). "Civil Rights Activist Morris
Dees Receives ABA Medal". ABA Journal Law News Now. American Bar
Association. Retrieved 2012-08-14.
^ "The King Center". The Nonviolent Peace Prize Award. The King
Center. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
Morris Dees Speaking". Emporia State University. 2006. Archived
from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-09-18.
^ "Civil Rights Legend
Morris Dees to Discuss Litigating Against Hate
Groups". University of Texas at Austin. March 2007. Archived from the
original on 2008-05-16. Retrieved 2009-01-13.
Morris Dees to speak on "The Current Status of Hate Groups in the
United States"". University of Michigan. March 2007. Retrieved
^ Zinko, Carolyne (2009-05-23). "Civil rights icons lead S.F. State
graduation". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
^ "Morris Seligman Dees". The My Hero Project. Retrieved December 5,
^ Line of Fire: The
Morris Dees Story, 1991, retrieved
^ "Micheal McDonald clip on KKK: Inside American Terror". National
Geographic. 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-10-30. Retrieved
Dees, Morris, and Steve Fiffer. 1991. A Season For Justice, (Dees'
autobiography) New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Egerton, John (July 14, 1988). "Poverty Palace: How the Southern
Poverty Law Center got rich fighting the Klan". The Progressive.
Madison, Wis.: 14–17. ISSN 0033-0736.
Also published as Egerton, John (May–June 1988). "The klan basher".
Foundation News. Foundation Center: 38–43. (Archived at
Special Collections and University Archives Jean and Alexander Heard
Library Vanderbilt University)
Hall, Dave, Tym Burkey and Katherine M. Ramsland. 2008. Into the
Devil’s Den. New York: Ballantine. ISBN 978-0-345-49694-2
Southern Poverty Law Center
Southern Poverty Law Center – Official website
Morris Dees: Center founder and chief trial counsel – Official
Appearances on C-SPAN
Morris Dees on IMDb
Line of Fire: The
Morris Dees Story on IMDb
Line of Fire: The
Morris Dees Story at the TCM Movie Database
Morris Dees at Goodreads