In 1967, lawyer Morris Dees had achieved extraordinary business and financial success with his book publishing company. The son of an Alabama farmer, he witnessed firsthand the painful consequences of prejudice and racial injustice. He sympathized with the Civil Rights Movement but had not become actively involved. A night of soul searching at a snowed-in Cincinnati airport changed his life, inspiring Dees to leave his safe, business-as-usual world and undertake a new mission.
"When my plane landed in Chicago, I was ready to take that step, to speak out for my black friends who were still 'disenfranchised' even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965," Dees wrote in his autobiography, A Season for Justice. "Little had changed in the South. Whites held the power and had no intention of voluntarily sharing it ...
A message from Morris Dees
"I had made up my mind. I would sell the company as soon as possible and specialize in civil rights law," Dees said. "All the things in my life that had brought me to this point, all the pulls and tugs of my conscience, found a singular peace. It did not matter what my neighbors would think, or the judges, the bankers, or even my relatives."
Out of this deeply personal moment grew the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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Morris Seligman Dees, Jr. was born in 1936 in Shorter, Alabama, the son of farmers. He was very active in agriculture during high school and was named the Star Farmer of Alabama in 1955 by the Alabama Future Farmers of America.
Dees attended undergraduate school at the University of Alabama where he founded a nationwide direct mail sales company that specialized in book publishing. After graduation from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1960, he returned to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, and opened a law office.
He continued his mail order and book publishing business, Fuller & Dees Marketing Group, which grew to be one of the largest publishing companies in the South. In 1969, Dees sold the company to Times Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times.
In recognition of his publishing work and his efforts to encourage young people to become active in the business world, Dees was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America in 1966 by the U. S. Jaycees.
After his epiphany in 1967, Dees began taking controversial cases that were highly unpopular in the white community. He filed suit to stop construction of a white university in an Alabama city that already had a predominantly black state college. In 1969, he filed suit to integrate the all-white Montgomery YMCA.
As he continued to pursue equal opportunities for minorities and the poor, Dees and his law partner Joseph J. Levin, Jr. saw the need for a non-profit organization dedicated to seeking justice. In 1971, the two lawyers founded the Southern Poverty Law Center and civil rights activist Julian Bond became its first president.
Dees has received numerous awards in conjunction with his work at the Center. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named him Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987, and he received the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association in 1990.
The American Bar Association gave him its Young Lawyers Distinguished Service Award, and the American Civil Liberties Union honored Dees with its Roger Baldwin Award. Colleges and universities have recognized his accomplishments with honorary degrees, and the University of Alabama gave Dees its Humanitarian Award in 1993.
In 2001, the National Education Association selected Dees as recipient of its Friend of Education Award, its highest award, for his "exemplary contributions to education, tolerance and civil rights."
Dees' success has not been limited to his work for the Center. In 1972, he was Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern's finance director. Dees raised over $24 million from 600,000 small donors, the first time a presidential campaign had been financed with small gifts by mail. Dees also served as former President Carter's national finance director in 1976 and as national finance chairman for Senator Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign.
Dees frequently speaks to colleges and universities, legal associations and other groups throughout the country. Over the years, he has been awarded at least 25 honorary degrees.
Dees' autobiography, A Season For Justice, was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1991. The American Bar Association re-released it in 2001 as A Lawyer's Journey: The Morris Dees Story.
His second book, Hate on Trial: The Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi, was published by Villard Books in 1993. It chronicles the trial and $12.5 million judgment against white supremacist Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance group for their responsibility in the beating death of a young black student in Portland, Oregon.
His third book, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat, exposes the danger posed by today's domestic terrorist groups. It was published by Harper Collins Publishers in 1996.