Morris Dees

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Morris Dees
Morris Dees Boston 2015.jpg
Dees in 2015
BornMorris Seligman Dees Jr.
(1936-12-16) December 16, 1936 (age 81)
Shorter, Alabama, U.S.[1]
ResidenceMontgomery, Alabama, U.S.
OccupationCivil and political rights, social justice activist

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 (SPLC), and a former market engineer for book publishing.[2] Along with his law partner, Joseph J. Levin Jr., Dees founded the SPLC in 1971.[3] Dees and his colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center have been "credited with devising innovative ways to cripple hate groups" such as the Ku Klux Klan.[4]

Early life[edit]

Dees was born in 1936 in Shorter, Alabama, the son of Annie Ruth (Frazer) and Morris Seligman Dees, Sr., tenant cotton farmers.[2][5] His family was Baptist.[6] His father was named "Morris Seligman" after a Jewish friend of Dees's grandfather.[7] After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1960,[8] he returned to Montgomery, Alabama and opened a law office.

Marketing career[edit]

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.[9] Dees's former partner Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976 and served in executive roles until 2005.

Civil rights legal practice[edit]

In his 1991 autobiography[10] Dees wrote that in 1962 he represented Ku Klux Klan member Claude Henley who faced Federal charges for attacking 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[11] had been refused admission to attend a YMCA summer camp.[12] The YMCA, being a private organization, was presumptively not bound by the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,[13] which would have forbidden them to discriminate against children on the basis of race.[14] However, Dees discovered that, in order to avoid desegregating its recreational facilities,[12] 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.[14] 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.[15] According to historian Timothy Minchin, Dees was "emboldened by this victory" when he founded the SPLC in 1971.[14] 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.[16]

Civil lawsuit strategy[edit]

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 the Ku Klux Klan accountable for the actions of their members. In 1981, Dees successfully sued the United Klans of America and won a $7 million judgment for the mother of Michael Donald, a black lynching victim in Alabama.[17][18] Payment of the judgment bankrupted the 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.[citation needed]

A decade later, in 1991, Dees obtained a judgment of $12 million against Tom Metzger's White Aryan Resistance.[17] 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.[4] A 2000 article by Ken Silverstein in 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."[19] 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."[20] 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.[21]

Target of violence[edit]

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.[22] In 2007 Dees said that over 30 people had been jailed in connection with plots to either kill Dees or blow up the center.[23] 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.[23] During the IKA trial a former member of the IKA said that the Klan head told him to kill Dees.[24] Morris Dees and William F. McMurry represented the plaintiff in the trial against the IKA in November 2008.[25]

Political activity[edit]

Dees started off in politics by working for Southern politician George Wallace in 1958.[26] He served as Senator George McGovern's national finance director in 1972,[27] 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.[28] Dees ran for the board of the Sierra Club as a protest candidate in 2004, qualifying by petition.[29]

Awards and recognition[edit]

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".[30] The 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.[31] 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.[32]

Over the last several years, Dees has presented numerous lectures on civil rights and justice at universities.[33][34][35] In 2009, he was the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony for San Francisco State University.[36] He was identified as a Freedom hero by The My Hero Project.[37] He received the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice in 1993.[38]

Media appearances[edit]

The story of Dees's campaigns against white supremacist hate groups was dramatized in a 1991 TV movie entitled Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story.[39]

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.[40]


  • Dees, Morris and Steve Fiffer (2003). A Lawyer's Journey: The Morris Dees Story. Chicago: American Bar Association. ISBN 1-57073-994-3.
  • 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. ISBN 0-679-40614-X.
  • 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.


  1. ^ " Morris Dees Biography". Southern Poverty Law Center. 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-02-06. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Dees, Morris, and Steve Fiffer. 1991. A Season For Justice. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, pp. 132–33. ISBN 0-684-19189-X
  4. ^ a b Sack, Kevin (12 May 1996). "A Son of Alabama Takes On Americans Who Live to Hate". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Monroe, Carla R. "Morris Dees | biography – American civil rights lawyer". Retrieved 2017-04-24.
  6. ^ "Morris Dees: Biography: Family History and Childhood". Retrieved 2015-08-01.
  7. ^ "People's Lawyers: Crusaders for Justice in American History – Diana Klebanow, Franklin L. Jonas". Retrieved 2015-08-01.
  8. ^ Legends. University of Alabama. Accessed 24 April 2017
  9. ^ Kent, Francis B (December 14, 1975). "Poverty Law Center Scores in South". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ Dees and Fiffer (1991) p. 108
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ YMCA desegregation ruling turns 40, The Louisiana Weekly, July 26, 2010. Retrieved December 9, 2010; URL replaced with version archived December 20, 2010.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Paul Finkelman (October 10, 2006). Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. Taylor & Francis. p. 4836. ISBN 978-1-135-94704-0. Retrieved May 6, 2015.
  16. ^ Dees and Fiffer (1991) p. 125
  17. ^ a b Andrea Stone, "Morris Dees: At the Center of the Racial Storm," USA Today, 3 August 1996, A-7.
  18. ^ "The Nation Klan Must Pay $7 Million". Los Angeles Times. 13 February 1987. Retrieved 2007-09-18.
  19. ^ The church of Morris Dees: How the Southern Poverty Law Center profits from intolerance, Ken Silverstein, 'Harper's Magazine, November 2000
  20. ^ The Southern Poverty Business Model, Ken Silverstein, Harper's Magazine blog, November 2, 2007
  21. ^ Smothers, Ronald (September 9, 1992). "Judicial Nomination Sunders Old Allies". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 December 2016.
  22. ^ "Group is accused of plotting assassinations, bombings. 2 others will plead guilty Thursday." St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) (May 13, 1998): pB1.
  23. ^ a b Klass, Kym (17 August 2007). "Southern Poverty Law Center beefs up security". Montgomery Advertiser. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-09-18.
  24. ^ "Former member: Ky. Klan plotted to kill attorney". Associated Press. 13 November 2008. Retrieved 2007-09-18.[dead link]
  25. ^ "Jordan Gruver v. Imperial Klans of America". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 18 September 2012.
  26. ^ Bill Morlin (26 January 1999). "Targeted by hate groups, Dees also has their number". The Spokesman-Review. p. A4.
  27. ^ Stone, Andrea (1996-08-03). "Morris Dees: At center of the racial storm". USA Today. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  28. ^ Shogan, Robert (October 28, 1979). "Kennedy to Tell Candidacy Prior to Thanksgiving". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2007-07-17.
  29. ^ "Morris Dees' Sierra Club candidate statement seeks tolerance". Southern Poverty Law Center. January 22, 2004. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  30. ^ "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.
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ "The King Center". The Nonviolent Peace Prize Award. The King Center. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
  33. ^ "Morris Dees Speaking". Emporia State University. 2006. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-09-18.
  34. ^ "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.
  35. ^ "Morris Dees to speak on "The Current Status of Hate Groups in the United States"". University of Michigan. March 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-18.
  36. ^ Zinko, Carolyne (2009-05-23). "Civil rights icons lead S.F. State graduation". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  37. ^ "Morris Seligman Dees". The My Hero Project. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  38. ^
  39. ^ Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story, 1991, retrieved 2016-10-12
  40. ^ "Micheal McDonald clip on KKK: Inside American Terror". National Geographic. 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-10-30. Retrieved 2008-11-18.


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