May 10, 2017 News » Cover Story

Morris Dees on the legacy of his Southern Poverty Law Center 

Fighting Hate

  • Brian Bohannon/AP Images

Morris Dees, the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaks in a heavy Southern drawl.

The son of an Alabama farmer, Dees grew up in Klan country, in an area cut off from interstates, at a time when whites held land and blacks worked fields and cotton gins. He is 80, and he still lives in the Alabama countryside. But his influence has reached far beyond his humble beginnings.

In an interview ahead of his May 18 talk at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, Dees says he didn't set out to change the world, destroy white supremacist groups, or found a nonprofit that has spent decades fighting hate through education and court battles. Fact was, Morris Dees was so successful in business from such a young age that he nearly decided not to open a law practice at all. But he began taking on pro bono cases and, as he likes to say, "one thing led to another."

In 1971, Dees founded SPLC with another lawyer, Joe Levin. In 1972, the group won a case that reapportioned the Alabama State Legislature, integrating it. The next year, it forced the Department of Defense to offer servicewomen the same benefits as servicemen.

While SPLC would spend decades fighting for the rights of women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, migrants, homeless people, prisoners, immigrants and others, it became best known for fighting for integration and against Jim Crow laws; helping minority defendants, some of whom were sitting on death row; and going to bat against the Ku Klux Klan. Dees had a strategy with large hate groups: He'd sue for a single hate crime, then use damages to seize the group's land and assets, driving it out of business.

SPLC's history is long and storied, but here are a some highlights: In the 1980s, SPLC's lawsuits forced a militant Klan group with over 1,000 armed members to disband. Later, they targeted the United Klans of America following the lynching of a black man, winning a $7 million verdict in Mobile, Alabama. That marked the end of a group that had terrorized Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights movement and was linked to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which famously killed four little girls in Birmingham in 1963.

In 1990, SPLC won a $12.5 million verdict against the White Aryan Resistance for their connection to the killing of an Ethiopian student. SPLC filed suit on behalf of the student's young son. In 1994, lawyers took on the white supremacist Church of the Creator after its followers murdered a black Gulf War veteran, winning a $1 million settlement. In 1998, SPLC was awarded a $37.8 million verdict (later reduced to $21.5 million) against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan on behalf of one of several black churches the group had burned.

click to enlarge Morris Dees consults with Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Joe Levin. - COURTESY SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
  • Courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Morris Dees consults with Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Joe Levin.

In 2000, the organization won a case against the Aryan Nations that allowed it to seize their Idaho compound and destroy it. In 2005, SPLC went after a group of border vigilantes, Ranch Rescue, sending one leader to prison, after two Salvadorans were assaulted. In 2007, a mentally challenged black man was awarded $7 million after a racially motivated beating in Texas. In 2012, SPLC won a $2.5 million verdict against Imperial Klan of America leaders after the beating of a minority teenager in Kentucky. And in 2015, SPLC saw all 10 defendants plead guilty after murdering a Mississippi black man in a racially motivated attack.

"I think America's made drastic changes, drastic changes," Dees says. "In the Southeast, especially, we've got black elected officials all over the place ... lots of changes going on, [but] they change slow."

Dees didn't come out of all this unscathed. His life and livelihood were threatened, and in 1983, members of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan burned down SPLC's offices. But the organization never slowed down. Today, its staff of attorneys and advocates focuses litigation on five areas: children's rights, economic justice, immigrant justice, LGBTQ rights and criminal justice reform.

Over the years, SPLC also expanded its reach. In 1991, it launched "Teaching Tolerance," a program that provides free classroom materials on diversity and tolerance to teachers nationwide. In 1998, after monitoring the Klan for 17 years, SPLC launched the Intelligence Project which currently tracks more than 1,600 extremist groups nationwide, including two in Colorado Springs. SPLC also built and maintains the Civil Rights Memorial and its interpretive center in Montgomery, Alabama.

Of course, SPLC, and Dees, have not been without their critics. Notably, a scathing article in Harper's in 2000 called out the organization for slick fundraising and comparatively minimal spending on the cause. It also noted that early in his career, before the founding of SPLC, Dees defended a racist accused of assaulting someone at a Freedom Riders stop. (Dees, who has spoken and written openly about the case, told us that he didn't realize at first that the man, a friend of his cousin's, had connections to the Klan.)

These days, GuideStar, which provides information on nonprofits, gives SPLC a gold rating. In its 2015 fiscal year, which runs from Nov. 1 to Oct. 31, tax documents show SPLC reported total revenues of over $58 million and total expenses of nearly $45.8 million, with net assets of over $328 million. An audited financial report posted to SPLC's website, along with other financial documents, shows that in October 2016, SPLC's endowment fund sat at a healthy $319 million.

SPLC has remained active and taken on new issues, including transgender rights, under the leadership of President Richard Cohen. But the ruggedly handsome Dees, who was once the subject of a TV movie, remains the founder and chief trial attorney, as well as the face of the organization. And it's easy to see why. While every organization paints their leaders in the best possible light, only Dees gets to quote Coretta Scott King as calling him, "by any measure one of the most dedicated and effective civil rights lawyers in U.S. history." Or the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison saying, "[Morris Dees] stands up to hate, racism and intolerance with a deep passion and a remarkable clarity of purpose. He has the courage to hold firm to his beliefs — even in the face of constant threats."

Locally, Rosemary Lytle, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Colorado, Montana and Wyoming state conference, says she considers SPLC and the NAACP "first cousins in the movement in a lot of ways, especially the legal defense fund," and says of its founder, "I think Morris Dees is an icon of the Civil Rights Movement."

Sharyn Markus, program chair of the local Greenberg Center for Learning and Tolerance, and a retired Academy District 20 teacher, says she used to teach SPLC's Teaching Tolerance curriculum in her classroom. The Greenberg Center, founded in 2003, tries to present programs that focus on key issues while promoting understanding and tolerance. Recently, for instance, the center attracted hundreds for a program on human trafficking and, she says, around 1,400 attended a talk by author Shaka Senghor on prison reform last year. This year, she says, the center wanted to focus on the startling rise in hate crimes and intolerance, but not in a way that pointed fingers and made the problem worse. "We decided that timing was right to bring in Morris Dees," she says. Adding, "We think he's going to be incredible."

We spoke with Dees about his life's work and the fight still ahead.

click to enlarge Dees talks with an inmate at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama, in 1972. - MICHAEL MAUNEY
  • Michael Mauney
  • Dees talks with an inmate at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama, in 1972.

Indy: As a straight white male attorney you could have done anything you wanted and probably lived quite comfortably and not been targeted by the KKK or had your offices blown up. So why did you decide to do what you did?

Morris Dees: I just had a business partner named Millard Fuller who went on to form Habitat for Humanity. We started a business in college and when I got out — we were very successful in college with it for two, three years. We got apartment houses and rented them to students and I was quite an entrepreneur, I guess you could say, in college. And I did rather well, and started a nationwide book publishing company and all this — we had all this coming out of college.

[I] started not to practice law, started just to stay in the business world, but ... he and I came to Montgomery [Alabama] and tried to set up a law practice, but we also were continuing the business and the business grew so I really only had an open door law practice for a couple of years. Then we went full-time into book publishing with offices in Chicago and other places and I bought him out in 1965 and I sold the company out to the L.A. Times, Times-Mirror Company, in 1970.

But during those years though, while we were in Montgomery, I'm talking about in the mid-60s, we got involved with the Selma march. We hauled marchers to Selma, then put 'em out to march back to Montgomery, the big march. And then, after I bought him out, I became [board] president of the [Alabama] ACLU somewhere back in that time and I represented the black people in Montgomery because they weren't allowed — the city closed its pools, its swimming pools. There was about 20 of 'em, covered 'em up with dirt, because they couldn't operate segregated swimming pools after Brown vs. The Board [of Education].

So in 1955, they closed all of 'em and in 1960 — I think it was '68 — I filed suit against the YMCA ... The Y had one black Y and five predominantly white Ys scattered around with big recreation fields and stuff. So that was the first major civil rights case I did, and it wasn't very popular in Montgomery, Alabama, as you can imagine.

So the YMCA board was made up of the mayor, his ex-officio chairperson, and about every other important business and social person was on it. And they had a lot of support from the city. And the city sold them a couple of pieces of real estate at a nominal price to build some YMCA buildings ... I sued the YMCA with the theory that they had taken over a city function. They were operating recreation facilities and therefore, you know, had to abide by the Constitution in equal protection and due process.

So the federal judge in that case ruled for us, in a very prominent case, the first case I think where a nonprofit, non-city operation was sued and the state law was applied to them, the Constitution. So that was a pretty phenomenal case and it made me extremely unliked in Montgomery. So they tried to disbar me, which you know, they had nothing to do it with, but they tried. And they wanted to just do whatever they could to run me out of business, but they couldn't do that because my business was mail-order, national ... Anyway, that got me involved in a lot of controversial things ... I sued to integrate the [Alabama] state troopers not long after they had beat the marchers up at the Selma bridge, and integrated the state troopers and got a one-in-four hiring ratio.

... When I sold the company I took the money and set up a law practice basically doing civil rights kind of work. And then in 1968, '69, '70 when I sold out, went full-time and then decided to have it incorporated into the Southern Poverty Law Center, kicked up another lawyer to work with me, and that began the whole thing. Today we have 48 lawyers and about 275 employees teaching programs nationwide in over 100,000 schools, which is most of the schools in the country. And we do cases all over the country, not just Southern.

We have a case in Montana right now ... we're suing a hate group, a web hate group, the largest one in the country, that went after a local Jewish woman for no good reason. We're suing them, they're closely tied to the Trump administration, some of the people are. Trump's not behind it, but they like him. And you know in New Jersey we filed suit against a group of people that would say, 'Hey, give me $10,000 and I can take your gay son and make him straight.' Which is a fraud in the first place.

Right, there have been several attempts by our state legislature to outlaw that here. It's called conversion therapy. But the ban hasn't passed yet.

Right, well, it probably will happen. It'll happen and a lot of these places, what they do to these kids, they get frustrated, and a lot of the children that come there — young, teen boys, mainly anywhere from 12 to 17, 18 — they're usually suicidal, have a lot of problems, because of being frowned on and the parents are usually to the religious right. Some of them are ultra-conservative Jewish families, but not many of those, and then you've got the Mormons involved in it. So we filed that suit in New Jersey and won that case.

We sued the Aryan Nations in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which is a big nonprofit hate group. We sued — and most of these groups are nationwide, but we put 12 of 'em out of business, big major hate groups in the country. And those are groups with real estate and land, and people came and trained and that was during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. So we knocked those groups out of business.

click to enlarge Dees with Henock Seraw, who was 9 when white supremacists killed his father, an Ethiopian student, in 1988. - COURTESY SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
  • Courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Dees with Henock Seraw, who was 9 when white supremacists killed his father, an Ethiopian student, in 1988.

I understand how you did it. But why did you do it?

We was representing people who were injured. In the first place, we didn't try to go after hate groups, we represented a man who shot a Klansman and almost killed him in Alabama. And we weren't really going after — we were doing death penalty cases and other criminal cases and civil rights stuff but so, when this guy shot this Klansman in 1980, he was fixin' to uh, get put in prison for that. And the Klan attacked them in the streets, you know attacked these black people. So we got involved in that and that led us to setting up a group to track hate groups and stuff like that. So that's kind of how we did it. And it wasn't because we didn't like the Klan ... I ain't thought about the Klan since the 1950s, you know ... I was just trying to help this one guy. He was an interesting guy ... in one of these Motown groups.

What was his name?

... Curtis Robinson was his name ... The reason I represented him, and the reason I represented the black kids in Montgomery, is because I just feel deep down inside that people shouldn't be discriminated against and indicted and not allowed to swim. Like I swam with blacks and I grew up in the country on a farm. We had a little ole farm, we didn't have a lot of land or nothin', but we just farmed. And most of the white folks owned the land and blacks worked in the fields, and I had a chance to work in the fields with the blacks, so I got to know 'em well. And we'd go swim in the creeks and when all the blacks in town weren't allowed to go into the YMCA pools and the summer camp and all, I just felt sorry for 'em.

You still live in the Alabama countryside. What's it like now?

... You know, my neighbors down the road, they kind of conservative farm type people. One of my cousins is a Klan member down the road ... My barn — I have a bunch of barns — but one big 'un on the side the road has about 5,000 bales of hay in it. And he told the fella, he says, 'Y'all let Morris Dees' barn alone 'cause he's one of us.' [Laughs] Meaning he's family. [Laughs] The South is kind of funny.

You know, but one thing led to another. But as the Southern Poverty Law Center grew, I added more people and we went against the Klan. And then I found out that a lot of the young people were doin' all this stuff. It always had been with hate groups, [young people are] the ones that committed most of the hate crimes. And actually about 90 percent, 95 percent, of all hate crimes [aren't] committed by hate groups anyway. They're just neighbors that don't like another one or this that and the other. And so we decided we needed to teach tolerance to young people, so we set up a program called Teaching Tolerance. And it's a very big program now. We probably give away $5 [million] or $7 million worth of materials to most all the schools in the country.

I've seen it, yeah.

It's a wonderful program, because most of these people I run across doin' these hate crimes and doin' bad things, if they had some good community leader behind 'em they probably would have been a leader in the Boy Scouts. So I think it's just a lack of leadership, a lack of parental guidance and all, you know, so I think that's important. My parents weren't liberal in the way we think of today. They were just good ole country farm people and my mother was a justice of the peace. You don't have to be a lawyer for that. She just — people came off the highway and got caught speeding and she was the one that, you know, listened to the case.

And my daddy didn't graduate from high school and my mama didn't go to college, but they was just good folks. But they were from large families. My daddy had a brother, big time Klan member, but I didn't know that though. He didn't get to be a Klan member, I don't think, until Brown vs. Board, but I knew he was a racist and all. But my daddy had two brothers and they all loved me to death, loved my brothers and sisters, and so race and politics wasn't a big community subject.

Even though my daddy was very loved by the black people — they used to gin cotton in our cotton gin — and he wasn't too close with his two brothers, they were such racists, but on the other hand we all went to family meetings together an all ... So I kind of just grew up, made my own mind up, and got motivated by my mother and daddy who were great people, but also my neighbors in the community, blacks and whites.

So in school we're always taught that the Civil Rights era was when racism came to a head and everything has been improving since then. I wonder if you think that's true. Or if you think there are parallels between our current time and the Civil Rights movement.

Well, you know, those things come in phases and the Civil Rights movement ... started with the Civil War. That was 600,000 people died to free black slaves, and then you went to Jim Crow laws and pretty much the North let the South do what the South wanted to, and then you had the Civil Rights movement.

But during those times you also had, and before and after, women's rights, gay/lesbian rights, you had so many other issues, handicapped people, you had so many other issues that are moving along, that I think it's a continuing drama, it's a continuing series in America. When the United States Constitution was drafted it didn't have a Bill of Rights ... And one thing the Constitution did not do is provide for the right for women to vote. And you probably think, 'What kind of Constitution is that?' Well, it was probably well accepted that women didn't vote and they didn't even accept blacks to be full citizens ... To answer your question, I think that the issue of racism and civil rights varies and changes.

People these days often make comparisons to Hitler. Conservatives compared Obama to Hitler, and now you have people on the left comparing Trump to Hitler. And I wonder if you think any of that's appropriate.

No, I don't think it is appropriate. I mean you bring up somebody like Adolf Hitler and you say, 'Well, Joe Smith is like Adolf Hitler.' I think those are just characterizations that get you nowhere. And obviously Obama couldn't be compared to fascist, Nazi Hitler who slaughtered people. I mean Obama's just — I know you said people compared Obama to Hitler, and that's a joke.

And on the other hand there are people who say Trump may sound like some authoritative dictator type. You know, it's just he's not that. He's got some crass attitudes and some of his statements cause people to do a lot of things. Hate crimes just shot up after Trump got elected, especially in the schools ... So, uh, America's in some dangerous times. I think the most important thing though, is for individuals to look around their own community and determine what they themselves can do.

What has been the impact of Trump's talk about immigrants and refugees?

I think it's terrible, absolutely terrible. We see people picked up and we see students picked up, who are a part of that program where they came to this country when they were 5 years old and Obama came up with a way for them to get an education. We represented one recently over in Mississippi ... She ended up making a public statement condemning Trump and she was picked up within three hours and put in a holding camp to be sent back to Mexico and the holding camp was in Louisiana ... We got her out. We filed a lawsuit and got her out. Because she was here legally — she wasn't born here, so that don't make her a citizen, she came here when she was like 5 or 7 years old. But she had taken advantage of a great education and had a good career and was making good grades and then all of a sudden she was picked up out of just pure bigotry.

... First off, America's not going to export millions of people, Latinos, because they are the ones that are doing a lot to make various economic things in this country work. I mean, I'm sure there are a lot that are professional people too, but there are a lot who do uh, the beef processing and the chicken processing, the pork slaughterhouses, putting on roofing. You know the work they do all over the country. And there's no one to replace them ... There're towns in Illinois and Iowa, you've got towns of 12[,000] or 15,000 people, that are 80 percent Latino. Because they're towns processing chicken and pork and beef and stuff like that.

click to enlarge Colorado College demonstrators hold signs relating to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in March of 1965. - PHOTOGRAPH BY STANLEY L. PAYNE, COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE, COURTESY OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, PIKES PEAK LIBRARY DISTRICT, 004-10520
  • Photograph by Stanley L. Payne, Colorado Springs Gazette, Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District, 004-10520
  • Colorado College demonstrators hold signs relating to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in March of 1965.

So you track hate groups nationally, and there are two listed for Colorado, the Family Research Project and Pray in Jesus Name Project. Now the Pray in Jesus Name Project is run by Gordon Klingenschmitt. He used to be a state representative until very recently. I don't think everybody would think of these groups as hate groups. So what makes a hate group?

Well, I'm not in charge of that at the Southern Poverty Law Center, you can call somebody there and they can give you a better answer, but uh, it's not so much that a person might have a group that's to the religious right or left, or a group that's anti-immigration. They have the perfect right in America to have those views and express their views. It's when a group targets a certain category of people and makes statements about them that are not true. There's a very prominent group ... [whose leaders] say that it was the gay people that caused the killing of all the Jews under Adolf Hitler, which is just bald-faced untrue.

Well certainly Pray in Jesus Name is very anti-LGBT too.

Well, anti-LGBT, it's OK to be anti gay and lesbian. Now maybe I don't think people should be that way, but it's when they say something to the effect that, 'Well, school principals want to get all the little boys together to all this blah blah blah because the school principal's gay.' That's when you're demeaning the person. There's no truth in it first of all.

You have people on all spectrums, straight, queer, gay or whatever that do things that we don't approve of. That's why we have criminal laws. But if you have a group that says, 'Well, all lesbians and women have certain characteristics,' which is a bald-faced lie, that makes it a hate group. And hate groups doesn't have to be people that's out killing people, lynching people, or burning buildings ... Many of them are just social groups in the community [that] pull people together to have these totally hateful attitudes.

I'm guessing you keep up with Black Lives Matter. And we had a case recently here, where a black man, Ryan Brown, was pulled out of his car by police and the ACLU recently settled that case. So is there anything that can be done about excessive force from the police? I mean, I know you've spent a long time with hate groups, but what about the police?

Well, I think that Black Lives Matter are just as concerned with a cop that gets shot by a black or a black that gets shot by a cop. But I think they're concerned because a lot of the blacks that get shot by cops are not armed and etc., and without cell phones we wouldn't even know about 'em, most of 'em [cops] lie about it anyway until a cell phone pops up and, oh look what happened here.

On the other hand, I don't take a position one way or the other. I think it's just as bad for a black to shoot a cop and kill the cop for one reason or another ... I just think we need to educate everybody to be more open-minded and tolerant.

There was a Washington Post article recently about the 2016 American National Election Study. And it found that voters in the last presidential election were actually more motivated by racism than nationalism. I think a lot of people thought it was nationalism. So I wonder if you think there's an interplay between those two things, and also if you feel like — how did America suddenly become so racist?

... I think America hasn't become more racist or less racist. I think the hate groups have been out there leading, and I've been fighting a lot of 'em since the 1960s, '70s, and you've had those attitudes there. But when you've got a president going around speaking the same things that neo-Nazi hate group leaders are speaking ... You know America's never been racist-free. We went through all kind of racial issues after the Civil War. Reconstruction didn't last that long at all. They turned the blacks back over to the whites in the South and they ran it under Jim Crow for many years, from about 1870 to 1965, and it still goes on, not only in the South but in Baltimore and so many other places, but we just go to different degrees of it.

With social media and Twitter and all the other stuff is connecting people up like a giant posting bulletin board that anybody can post something they want any time they want to. And young people today, they don't get a set of World Book Encyclopedias. They go on the Internet and get Wikipedia or something else and they got a different source of stuff.

The digital world has changed the way people gather news. In the past, you've had originally three major networks, and you had people who gave the news once a day for an hour and you had a newspaper that people really read. Today, newspaper readership has fallen drastically and you got, not just three networks, but you got a lot of networks like FOX that are opinion pieces more than anything and then you've got all of the digital feeds just pouring out stuff, you can't even verify the truthfulness of it.

So you've got just a whole new generation of information, people delivering information and young people, not just young people, but people don't even know where to look for the truth.

  • Courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center

Has it been harder for you to fight these cases? Because I know you innovated that strategy of suing hate groups for a single incident, obtaining damages and using them to seize all the group's property and assets. But now everyone just puts everything through the web. So does that make it harder?

Well the old-fashioned hate groups that we sued and took their property and whatever, when somebody was lynched or house burned or whatever happened to 'em, sure it was easy to put that group out of business because it was easy to track 'em and they had assets and they taught people.

Today, it's much more difficult to go after a hate group that's got a big website ... It becomes more difficult when you can't tie somebody putting a brickbat in their hand to somebody saying, 'Throw this at that building.'

What can people do to resist this stuff?

I think each individual has to look what's going on in their neighborhood and figure how they can uh, associate themselves politically, or with religious groups, or community groups. Whatever it is, they need to get involved in their own neighborhood and not just sit back and you know get a prick in their back watching FOX News or CNN. And I like CNN, I think they're pretty fair, but still if that's your main source of information, and you don't purposefully get out of your house and go to another community or neighborhood or allow another neighborhood of people to come to your neighborhood, then you're not going to ever solve the problem. People gonna, you know, wall themselves in.

This interview has been edited for length

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