March 20, 2013 – As the chief trial counsel at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala., an organization that has litigated directly against members of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, Morris Dees has a few stories to tell.
Dees, a renowned civil rights attorney who co-founded the SPLC in 1971, will tell those stories to Wisconsin lawyers at the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE’s Litigation, Dispute Resolution, and Appellate Practice Institute on May 16 at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
“We all take the pledge, ‘one nation with liberty and justice for all,’” Dees said. “I’ll be talking about what that means for lawyers in a changing America.”
Dees and SPLC attorneys are best known for suing white supremacist and other hate groups on behalf of individuals and organizations. In addition, SPLC has dealt legal blows that decimate or weaken those hate networks through money judgments.
He says the changing demographics within American society will give lawyers new opportunities to protect the rights of vulnerable individuals, including immigrants and members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) communities.
“For the justice system to work well, it must work equally well for everyone,” said Dees. “As lawyers, we often hold the keys to the gates of justice. Courageous lawyers can help challenge the status quo. Many of us went to law school to do just that,” he says.
Justice For All
Dees, the son of Alabama cotton farmers, worked the fields with his African-American neighbors, and went on to attend college and law school during the rise of the civil rights movement. He says his parents taught their children to treat everyone as equals.
“I guess this work started with a good momma and daddy,” said Dees in his soft and unassuming Southern accent. He graduated from Alabama Law School in 1960.
He became a millionaire through a direct-mail marketing and publishing business, which he started in law school with Millard Fuller, who went on to start Habitat for Humanity. Dees, who had witnessed the civil rights movement unfold, started the SPLC.
In his first major case, Dees sued the Montgomery YMCA based on its segregation policy, which prevented two black children from attending summer camp. Dees argued that the YMCA was a state actor, citing an agreement between the city and the YMCA, and was unlawfully circumventing anti-segregation laws. He won.
Dees helped SPLC win other landmark cases involving racial inequality and sex discrimination throughout the 1970s. But the nonprofit public interest firm began taking on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s.
One of his most memorable cases, Dees says, is SPLC’s 1981 legal fight against the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, which was intent on threatening and eradicating the Vietnamese refugees who settled near Galveston Bay after the Vietnam War.
Vietnamese fishermen, who had formed the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association, were viewed as competition to local residents of the Texas gulf shore town. Locals, who failed to obtain legislative measures that would keep the Vietnamese out, called the Klan.
Klan members threatened the lives of the Vietnamese people, destroyed their property, and patrolled the bay to intimidate fisherman from departing port. The Vietnamese were ready to sell their boats and leave town, but Dees told them to hold their ground.
Dees and local attorneys eventually obtained a federal court injunction to stop the Klan’s activities, with U.S. marshals dispatched to carry out the court’s order.
“It was proud moment for me as a lawyer,” Dees said. “The Vietnamese people were simply looking for an equal opportunity in their new country.”
The SPLC took another big step to combat institutional racism when it pursued a theory to hold the Klan’s coffers liable for the illegal and criminal actions of its members. Since, then, SPLC has secured many millions in money damages for its victims. At the same time, these cases have decimated the capability of hate groups to organize.
In a case filed in 1984, the SPLC won a $7 million precedent-setting judgment against the corporate entity funding the Ku Klux Klan’s Alabama chapter. Its members were convicted of beating and killing an African-American teenager in Mobile in 1981.
In 1988, members of a white supremacist group based in California beat an Ethiopian graduate student with a baseball bat in Portland, Ore. The SPLC eventually won a $12.5 civil judgment against the group’s notorious leader and other members.
Perhaps its largest damages award came against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina, members of which burned down a Baptist church with all-black parishioners in 1995. The SPLC won a $37.4 million verdict, reduced to $21.5 million.
Most recently, in 2011, the SPLC preserved a $2.5 million civil judgment against the Imperial Klans of America for the brutal beating of a Latino teenager in Kentucky.
Courts have ordered these organizations to sell their assets to pay judgments to victims, bankrupting or severely disrupting their operations. Throughout the years, SPLC has been a driving force behind the war on institutional racism and hate crimes.
One Case at a Time
Taking on these cases has not been easy, though. Dees and SPLC’s lawyers have sacrificed personal safety and endured death threats to ensure justice.
In 1983, Klansmen retaliated by setting fire to SPLC’s Montgomery office building. More than 30 people have been imprisoned for making threats against SPLC, and Dees says he’s received nearly two dozen death threats over the years.
Despite the dangers, which demand heavy security at speaking engagements, Dees says SPLC will continue its effort to teach tolerance and fight for justice so long as injustice exists, just as he did when he committed himself to the fight in the late sixties.
“I saw the change that people were resisting here, and I decided I wanted to start attacking these laws one at a time,” Dees recalled from his Montgomery office.
Now, the SPLC continues to thrive, enlisting the help of pro bono attorneys across the country to help on cases of national concern. The organization monitors hate groups through a hatewatch blog and pinpoints known hate groups in all 50 states. It also founded a “Teaching Tolerance” program for schools and teachers.
SPLC’s docket includes cases on behalf of the LGBT community and disenfranchised children, among others. Dees says lawyers are central to preserving justice. He still takes on cases and, at 76, remains a seasoned mentor to younger attorneys.
“Lawyers have a front row seat to the justice system in America,” he said. “And they have the ability to challenge the status quo. I want to talk about the perpetual truths that exist. I want lawyers to remember why they went to law school in the first place.”
Morris Dees has earned numerous awards for his civil rights and trial work. Most recently, he won the ABA Medal in 2012, the highest award given by the ABA.
His work was featured in a NBC movie, “Line of Fire” (1991), and he was portrayed in the film, “Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996), based on the 1963 assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Dees has written three books, A Lawyers Journey, Hate on Trial (an autobiography), and Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat.
About the Institute
Morris Dees is a featured speaker on day one at the Litigation, Dispute Resolution, and Appellate Practice Institute, which will take place on May 16-17 in Milwaukee.
Preregistration is open through May 14. The cost is between $379 and $399 for State Bar of Wisconsin members (depending on a lunch option), with discounted pricing for Ultimate Pass holders ($0 to $209.50) and Law Student Associates ($20).