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Morris Dees

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Morris Dees
Dees in 2015
Morris Seligman Dees Jr.

(1936-12-16) December 16, 1936 (age 87)
Alma materUniversity of Alabama (LLB)
Occupation(s)Civil and political rights, social justice activist
Known forFounder of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Morris Seligman Dees Jr. (born December 16, 1936) is an American attorney known as the co-founder and former chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), based in Montgomery, Alabama. He ran a direct marketing firm before founding SPLC.[2] Along with his law partner, Joseph J. Levin Jr., Dees founded the SPLC in 1971.[3]: 132–33  Dees and his colleagues at the SPLC have been "credited with devising innovative ways to cripple hate groups" such as the Ku Klux Klan, particularly by using "damage litigation".[4]

On 14 March 2019 the SPLC announced that Dees had been fired from the organization and the SPLC would hire an "outside organization" to assess the SPLC's workplace climate.[5][6][7] Former employees alleged that Dees was "complicit" in harassment and racial discrimination, and said that at least one female employee had accused him of sexual harassment.[8]

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][9] His family was Baptist.[10] His grandfather named his son "Morris Seligman" after a Jewish friend.[11] After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1960,[12] Dees returned to Montgomery, Alabama, where he opened a law office.

Marketing career[edit]

Dees ran a direct mail and direct marketing business, Fuller & Dees Marketing Group, with Millard Fuller. He bought Fuller out in 1964 for $1 million, much of which Fuller donated to charity.[13] 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. While major civil rights legislation had been passed, Dees knew there were many injustices and organizations that continued to oppose minority rights. He used the revenue from the sale to found a legal firm (that eventually became the Southern Poverty Law Center) in 1971.[14] Dees's former marketing firm partner Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976 and served there in executive roles until 2005.

Political campaigns[edit]

Dees was[vague] financial director of George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972. He was national finance director for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1976, and he was finance chairman for Edward Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1980.[13]

Civil rights legal practice[edit]

In his 1991 autobiography[3]: 84–85  Dees wrote that in 1962, as a young lawyer, he had 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, which was roughly the median household salary in America at the time. Dees's defense helped Henley gain an acquittal. But Dees said he later had an "epiphany" and regretted defending Henley.

In 1969, Dees sued the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in Montgomery, Alabama, at the request of African-American civil rights activist Mary Louise Smith. She said that her son Vincent and nephew Edward[3]: 108  had been refused admission to attend a YMCA summer camp.[15] The YMCA was a private organization and therefore not bound by the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,[16] which prohibited racial discrimination in public facilities.[17]

But Dees discovered that, in order to avoid desegregating its recreational facilities,[15] the city of Montgomery had signed a secret agreement with the YMCA to operate them as private facilities and on the city's behalf.[17] He introduced evidence of this agreement in court and challenged the constitutionality of the YMCA position. The trial court ruled that the YMCA effectively had a "municipal charter" by this agreement with the city, and was therefore bound by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (and Civil Rights Act) to desegregate its facilities.[18] The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit(α) partly affirmed the trial judge's finding, reversing his order that the YMCA use affirmative action to racially integrate its board of directors.[3]: 125  According to historian Timothy Minchin, Dees was "emboldened by this victory" when he founded the SPLC in 1971.[17]

Civil lawsuit strategy[edit]

Dees was one of the principal architects of a strategy that used civil lawsuits to secure a court judgment for monetary damages against an organization for a wrongful act. The courts could potentially seize organization assets in order to gain payment of the judgment. Dees said that the aim was to gain large judgements which would "clean their clock".[19]

In 1981, the SPLC and Dees sued the United Klans of America (UKA) along with Michael Figures as co-counsel and won a $7 million judgment for Beulah Mae Donald, the mother of Michael Donald, an African American who had been lynched by UKA members in Alabama.[20][21][22] The judgment bankrupted UKA and its national headquarters building was sold for $51,875.[13][23]

A decade later, in 1991, Dees obtained a judgment of $12 million against Tom and John Metzger and the White Aryan Resistance.[20] He also helped secure a $6.5 million judgment in 2001 against the Aryan Nations. Dees's most famous cases have involved landmark damage awards that have driven several[vague] prominent neo-Nazi groups into bankruptcy, effectively causing them to disband.[citation needed]


Dees's 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] In 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser ran a series alleging that Dees discriminated against the SPLC's black employees, some of whom "felt threatened and banded together".[24]

A 2000 article by Ken Silverstein in Harper's Magazine alleged that Dees kept the SPLC focused on fighting anti-minority groups such as 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".[25] Stephen Bright, an Atlanta-based civil rights attorney and former 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".[25]

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, which has been shown to be disproportionately applied as a sentence against African-American men.[26]

Firing from the SPLC and harassment allegations[edit]

In 2019, the SPLC fired Dees for undisclosed reasons, and said the firm would hire an "outside organization" to investigate its workplace practices. Before the firing, two dozen employees had complained to management about concerns of "mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism" which threatened SPLC's moral authority and integrity.[27] A former employee said that Dees had a "reputation for hitting on young women" and that his ouster came "amid a staff revolt over the mistreatment of non-white and female employees" by Dees and SPLC leadership.[28]

Target of assassination[edit]

Dees's legal actions against racial nationalist organizations have motivated many of them to target him for assassination. As a result, he has received numerous death threats from some of these groups.[29] In 2007, Dees said that more than 30 people had been jailed in connection with plots to either kill him or blow up the center,[30] although a Montgomery police spokesman said he was not aware that the SPLC had informed the police of threats.[30] The Montgomery Advertiser reported that a letter which described such a plot was sent by Hal Turner, a radio talk show host, a paid FBI informant and a white supremacist, on July 29, 2007, after the SPLC filed a lawsuit against the Imperial Klans of America (IKA) in Meade County, Kentucky.[30] During the IKA trial, a former member of the IKA said that the Klan head told him to kill Dees.[31] Dees and William F. McMurry represented the plaintiff in the trial against the IKA in November 2008.[32]

Political career[edit]

In 1958, Dees started his political career by working for the Southern politician George Wallace, later the governor of Alabama.[33] Indicating his change of direction, in 1972 he served as Senator George McGovern's national finance director,[34] in 1976 as President Jimmy Carter's national finance director, and in 1980 as national finance chairman for Senator Ted Kennedy's Democratic primary presidential campaign against Carter.[35]

In 2004 Dees ran for the board of the Sierra Club as a protest candidate, qualifying by petition.[36]

Awards and recognition[edit]

  • In 1993 he received the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice.[37][failed verification]
  • In 1990, Dees was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) degree from Whittier College.[38]
  • 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".[39]
  • The American Bar Association awarded Dees the ABA Medal, the association's highest honor, by the ABA House of Delegates in 2012.[40]
  • 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.[41]

In the early 21st century, Dees has presented numerous lectures on civil rights and justice at universities.[42][43][44] In 2009, he was the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony for San Francisco State University.[45] He was identified as a Freedom Hero by The My Hero Project.[46]

Representation in other media[edit]

The TV movie titled Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story (1991) dramatized his campaigns against white supremacist hate groups.[47]

Dees's work was featured on the National Geographic's Inside American Terror in 2008.[48]


  • Dees, Morris & 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 & 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 978-0-684-19189-8.


  1. ^ "SPLCenter.org: Morris Dees Biography". Southern Poverty Law Center. 2009. Archived from the original on February 6, 2009. Retrieved May 25, 2009.
  2. ^ a b "Attorney Morris Dees pioneer in using 'damage litigation' to fight hate groups". CNN. September 8, 2000. Archived from the original on December 23, 2007. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  3. ^ a b c d 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 978-0-684-19189-8.
  4. ^ a b Sack, Kevin (May 12, 1996). "A Son of Alabama Takes On Americans Who Live to Hate". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Hassan, Adeel; Zraick, Karen; Blinder, Alan (March 14, 2019). "Morris Dees, a Co-Founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Is Ousted". The New York Times.
  6. ^ "Civil rights organization announces dismissal of founder". Washington Post. Associated Press. March 14, 2019. Archived from the original on April 3, 2019.
  7. ^ Brown, Melissa (March 14, 2019). "Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder Morris Dees". Montgomery Adviser.
  8. ^ Burch, Audra D. S.; Blinder, Alan; Eligon, John (March 25, 2019). "Roiled by Staff Uproar, Civil Rights Group Looks at Intolerance Within". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 26, 2019.
  9. ^ Monroe, Carla R. "Morris Dees | biography – American civil rights lawyer". Britannica.com. Retrieved April 24, 2017.
  10. ^ "Morris Dees: Biography: Family History and Childhood". Learntoquestion.com. Archived from the original on August 22, 2004. Retrieved August 1, 2015.
  11. ^ Klebanow, Diana; Jonas, Franklin L. (2003). People's Lawyers: Crusaders for Justice in American History. M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 978-0765606730. Retrieved August 1, 2015.
  12. ^ Legends Archived August 5, 2019, at the Wayback Machine. University of Alabama. Accessed April 24, 2017
  13. ^ a b c Paul Finkelman (2006). The Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties: A–F, Index. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1502–04. ISBN 978-0-415-94342-0.
  14. ^ Kent, Francis B (December 14, 1975). "Poverty Law Center Scores in South". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 1, 2007. Retrieved May 17, 2007.
  15. ^ 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. Archived from the original on July 5, 2014.
  16. ^ YMCA desegregation ruling turns 40, The Louisiana Weekly, July 26, 2010. Retrieved December 9, 2010; URL replaced with version archived December 20, 2010.
  17. ^ a b c Timothy Minchin (2011). After the Dream: Black and White Southerners since 1965. University Press of Kentucky. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-8131-2988-4.
  18. ^ Paul Finkelman (2006). Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. Taylor & Francis. p. 4836. ISBN 978-1-135-94704-0. Retrieved May 6, 2015.
  19. ^ "Sending a $12.5 Million Message to a Hate Group". The New York Times. October 22, 2012. Archived from the original on October 22, 2012. Retrieved November 5, 2019.
  20. ^ a b Andrea Stone, "Morris Dees: At the Center of the Racial Storm," USA Today, August 3, 1996, A-7.
  21. ^ "The Nation Klan Must Pay $7 Million". Los Angeles Times. February 13, 1987. Archived from the original on October 1, 2007. Retrieved September 18, 2007.
  22. ^ https://capitalbnews.org/shomari-figures-voices-of-change/
  23. ^ Anthony Joseph Stanonis (2008). Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South. University of Georgia Press. pp. 181–82. ISBN 978-0-8203-3169-0.
  24. ^ "Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder Morris Dees". The Montgomery Advertiser. Retrieved March 15, 2019.
  25. ^ a b Silverstein, Ken (November 2000). "The church of Morris Dees: How the Southern Poverty Law Center profits from intolerance". Harper's Magazine.
  26. ^ Smothers, Ronald (September 9, 1992). "Judicial Nomination Sunders Old Allies". The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2016.
  27. ^ "Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder amid misconduct concerns". UPI. Retrieved March 19, 2019.
  28. ^ Moser, Bob (March 21, 2019). "The Reckoning of Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 22, 2019.
  29. ^ "Group is accused of plotting assassinations, bombings. 2 others will plead guilty Thursday". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. St. Louis, Missouri: Lee Enterprises. May 13, 1998. p. B1.
  30. ^ a b c Klass, Kym (August 17, 2007). "Southern Poverty Law Center beefs up security". Montgomery Advertiser. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved September 18, 2007.
  31. ^ "Former member: Ky. Klan plotted to kill attorney". Associated Press. November 13, 2008. Retrieved September 18, 2007.[dead link]
  32. ^ "Jordan Gruver v. Imperial Klans of America". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  33. ^ Bill Morlin (January 26, 1999). "Targeted by hate groups, Dees also has their number". The Spokesman-Review. p. A4.
  34. ^ Stone, Andrea (August 3, 1996). "Morris Dees: At center of the racial storm". USA Today.
  35. ^ Shogan, Robert (October 28, 1979). "Kennedy to Tell Candidacy Prior to Thanksgiving". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 1, 2007. Retrieved July 17, 2007.
  36. ^ "Morris Dees' Sierra Club candidate statement seeks tolerance". Southern Poverty Law Center. January 22, 2004. Archived from the original on May 20, 2007. Retrieved May 17, 2007.
  37. ^ "Home » Voices Against Injustice".
  38. ^ "Honorary Degrees | Whittier College". www.whittier.edu. Retrieved February 20, 2020.
  39. ^ "About the Award". Morris Dees Justice Award. University of Alabama School of Law. Archived from the original on August 10, 2007. Retrieved August 19, 2007.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  40. ^ Weiss, Debra Cassens (August 7, 2012). "Civil Rights Activist Morris Dees Receives ABA Medal". ABA Journal Law News Now. American Bar Association. Retrieved August 14, 2012.
  41. ^ "The King Center". The Nonviolent Peace Prize Award. The King Center. Archived from the original on December 23, 2016. Retrieved December 23, 2016.
  42. ^ "Morris Dees Speaking". Emporia State University. 2006. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved September 18, 2007.
  43. ^ "Civil Rights Legend Morris Dees to Discuss Litigating Against Hate Groups". University of Texas at Austin. March 2007. Archived from the original on May 16, 2008. Retrieved January 13, 2009.
  44. ^ "Morris Dees to speak on "The Current Status of Hate Groups in the United States"". University of Michigan. March 2007. Retrieved September 18, 2007.
  45. ^ Zinko, Carolyne (May 23, 2009). "Civil rights icons lead S.F. State graduation". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved May 25, 2009.
  46. ^ "Morris Seligman Dees". The My Hero Project. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  47. ^ "Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story". IMDb. 1991. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  48. ^ "Micheal McDonald clip on KKK: Inside American Terror". National Geographic. 2008. Archived from the original on October 30, 2008. Retrieved November 18, 2008.

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