Morris S. Dees, Jr.
Morris Dees, Jr., Southern Poverty Law Center, Chief Trial Counselor
Several years ago, civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, Jr. developed an innovative legal strategy that sought to achieve what some legal scholars would have thought impossible: the leadership of racist organizations would be held accountable for the violent consequences of their activities. In 1987, he used the strategy in a $7 million wrongful death suit against the United Klans of America, charging that its message of racial hatred and violence inspired two Klan members to lynch a young, Mobile, Alabama black man. Dees won, and the local Klan was bankrupted.
In 1990, Dees won a $12.5 million suit against Thomas Metzger, the leader of White Aryan Resistance, and his son. The Metzgers' philosophy of racial hatred prompted two shinheads to beat a young Ethiopian immigrant to death the year before, in Portland, Oregon. As part of the judgment, the court seized the elder Metzger's house and all of his possissions.
Perhaps almost as remarkable as Dees' courtroom successes is the fact that he does not fit the "Privileged Eastern Kid Who Graduates From Ivy League Law School and Makes Trouble For Rednecks' Mold". Nor is he black.
Dees was born in Shorter, Alabama, the son of a farmer and cotton gin operator (indeed, Dees' boyhood nickname was "Bubba" and he still lives on a farm). He attended undergraduate school at the University of Alabama, where he founded a nationwide direct mail sales company that specialized in book publishing. After graduation from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1960, he opened a law office in Montgomery and continued his mail order business - which eventually became a $15 million publishing company before he sold it.
During the civil rights movement, Dees became active in aiding minorities in court. In 1967, he filed suit to stop construction of a white university in an Alabama city that already had a predominantly black state college. In 1968, he filed suit to integrate the all white Montgomery YMCA. In 1970, with Joseph J. Levin, Jr. and Julian Bond, he founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery. In 1980, the Center founded Klanwatch, a project which monitors hate groups and develops legal strategies such as those with which Dees brought the United Klans of America and White Aryan Nation to their knees.
To help educate young people about the civil rights movement, Dees developed the idea for The Civil Rights Memorial, in Montgomery. The Memorial bears the names of 40 men, women, and children who died during the civil rights movement. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named him Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987, and the National Education Association gave him the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award in 1990. His autobiography, A Season For Justice, was published by MacMillan in the spring of 1991. Dees is now Chief Trial Counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center and, in addition to suing violent white supremacist groups, he is developing ideas for the new Civil Rights Education Project.
Note: The above information on Mr. Morris Dees was taken from "Profile," a publication of the American Program Bureau, Inc., 36 Crafts Street, Newton MA.02158. Permission to reprint this information was granted by Bob Davis, Vice President of APBI.