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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Dees, in tradition of King speak at Herrick

L: You had a very successful business and law career before founding the Center so can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration for founding the Southern Poverty Law Center?

M: I actually started doing civil rights legal work before I sold my company. I was interested in that in the mid-60s with the American Civil Rights Movement. Our company was just something that I started in college with another student and it prospered. He and I sold out and he went on to form Habitat for Humanity and Millard Fuller and I formed the Southern Law Poverty Center. It was really just to incorporate the legal work I had been doing for the previous five years.

Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaks to a student after delivering a Scholar's Convocation on Herrick Chapel on Oct. 27. Photograph by Roni Finkelstein.

L: There are many injustices occurring in our world which all need the devotion of much time and many resources. What issues or causes do you feel need the most attention today?
The area that we are working on today that I think is the most significant is immigrant justice issues with Latino immigrants. Some states are passing some pretty appalling laws even though they need the workers to do the day labor and field work and work in chicken processing plants and all the other jobs with ”immigrant images.” These Latinos come to work in order to send money back to their families. They do jobs that Americans do not want to do, and it has been proven that they will not do them. Many of the unemployed do not feel that they can stoop down to pick onions and potatoes and strawberries and apples – they just won’t do it. So the politicians are passing these laws because the public is looking for scapegoats to blame America’s economic woes on and they are picking on the very people who are underpinning the economic system in many ways. It is classic American history, though. They went after the Irish when they got here; they didn’t like the Jews who came from Eastern Europe; the Chinese; the Japanese, others who came here, until they became a part of mainstream America.

So that work we are doing to me is really important work. There are a lot of groups doing immigrant justice work around the country. I feel that ours is more cutting-edge in the sense that we take on precedent- setting cases. We have some really great lawyers. In fact, Dan Werner is an attorney who graduated from Grinnell and is the head of our Immigrant Justice Department. He told me to tell y’all, “Hi.”
You have had some breakthrough and revolutionary courtroom successes. Do you have one case in particular, one victory in court, which really stands out?

M: There is not really one case, because we started out representing people who were victims of segregation in the South in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s and that kind of went away as we became fully integrated and the issues changed into more economic issues, hence the name, “Southern Poverty Law Center.”
You know it’s hard to pick one case – I guess representing the lady whose son was lynched by the clan was a pretty important case and took the headquarters away from that Klan group – the same group that had bombed the church in Birmingham and killed those four little girls. That was a significant case for many reasons and it was the first time a Klan group had ever been held liable for the acts of its members. And this lynching took place in the mid-‘80s, not back in the ‘50s.

The most important case that I guess that I’m working on is what I am doing at the moment. I feel every case is important and so I put the effort into each case as if it were precedent-setting.

L: I know that the Southern Poverty Law center has made some significant steps to work against the hateful actions of the Ku Klux Klan throughout history. However, these hate groups still exist today, so how has this same work transitioned to present day? What does the work against that look like today and what do you see in the future?

M: Well, first of all, the work that we do going to court against hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, probably represents 5% of our total work, both historically and today. I just happen to be the one doing most of those cases. We have probably have put ten to twelve major hate groups out of business – not all Ku Klux Klan. Today we have seen an explosion of hate groups –a lot of small groups, you know, three guys and a computer site. But they are still there. Some of the hate crimes that we’ve seen, we have kind of curbed their appetite for that because they see that we can take away their assets. But they are still sending a hateful message to young people who are Internet-savvy. So our intelligence project and internet project is working on curbing this type of behavior even though we don’t take them to court.

L: Do you have any messages you would like to convey to the Grinnell college students or further comments to make?

M: I am very impressed with the young people involved in social justice and that is the reason that I decided to come here – the Young Innovator for Social Justice prize. Your whole school here is interested in more than just going out and making money. There is nothing wrong with making a good living but you can also, at the same time, be an instrument of change. I would also like to get across the point that the march for justice continues. It didn’t end with Dr. King, it didn’t end with the gay rights movement, it isn’t ending with women’s issues, there are a lot of issues that continue to crop up as we get different groups of us’s and them’s. It changes all the time and those people in power tend to abuse power.

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    SarahOct 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm

  • J

    jacob margoliesOct 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I was surprised to see Morris Dees gave the keynote address at the Social Justice Symposium. Dees is a controversial figure, to say the least, in the civil right community. The Nation, Harpers magazine and others on the left have written long and detailed reports critical of Dees, arguing that his organization exists primarily to raise funds. From March 2007 Harper’s: “The [SPLC] Center earns more from its vast investment portfolio than it spends on its core mission….Millard Farmer, a death-penalty lawyer in Georgia once described Morris Dees as ‘the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement’ (adding, “I don’t mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye’).”
    I’m a Grinnell grad and curious whether any of this came up at the symposium or coverage of the events? Considering all the giants of the civil right movement, the choice of Dees as the keynote seems most peculiar.