25 April 2009

Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center...Fighting the Good Fight for Four Decades

I'm writing to introduce you to Morris Dees, an Alabama lawyer and hero of mine, who needs our help in his fight to put dangerous hate groups out of business.

Morris grew up on a small cotton farm in the deep south and went to law school at the University of Alabama. Soon after he graduated, Klansman bombed a Birmingham church, killing four little black girls. It was a tragedy that would eventually change Morris' life.

Leaving behind a successful business career, Morris began defending blacks in high-profile racially-motivated court cases -- not only unpopular but dangerous for a white man at the height of the civil rights struggle. In 1971, he founded the renowned Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery to carry on his fight for justice.

Since then, Morris and his colleagues have filed a series of lawsuits that have put dangerous hate groups out of business. More than two dozen people have been convicted in connection with plots to kill Morris or blow up his offices because of his courageous work.

A recent Ted Koppel documentary highlighted the $7 million verdict Morris won against the United Klans for lynching a black youth. This was the same Klan group that was responsible for the church bombing that killed the four little girls in Birmingham. Morris' case bankrupted the group.

I met Morris at a human rights' conference in Atlanta several years ago. I introduced myself as a child advocate and we ended up talking into the early morning at the hotel lounge about how to inspire young people to be open-minded and accepting of others. We also talked about growing up in Alabama (which we have in common), his work on McGovern's '72 presidential campaign, the civil rights movement, and a topic that eventually comes up among all Alabamans: football.

By the time all the martinis were drunk, Morris and I had solved all the problems of the world (and boldly predicted a national championship for the Crimson Tide next season).

I probably learned more from Morris that one evening than I did from all my college professors combined.

Morris' work is as important now as it's ever been. Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by more than 50 percent. The backlash against Obama's election in certain places and the tough economic times create a perfect storm for their continued growth.

Just last year, Morris won a $2.5 million verdict against the leader of the Imperial Klans of America (IKA) and one of his lieutenants for the brutal beating of a teenager in Kentucky. Just days before Morris took the IKA to court, federal agents arrested a member of an IKA splinter group for plotting to assassinate Obama.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service, depend upon the Law Center for up-to-date information about the hate groups. CBS News has reported that the Center has "cracked more cases that even the FBI couldn't solve."

In addition to suing hate groups, the Law Center supplies schools across the country with free educational material through its Teaching Tolerance project. It's a reflection of Morris' belief that it's as important to teach acceptance in the classroom as is it is fight hate in the courtroom. Bill Moyers has called Teaching Tolerance "a bold move into America's classroom to curb the rising tide of racial hatred."

The Center's work isn't limited to tracking and taking down white supremacists. They fight all forms of discrimination and work to protect society's most vulnerable members, handling innovative cases that few lawyers are willing to take.

They recently filed a federal class action law suit to stop the "shockingly inhumane" treatment of children at a juvenile detention center and to force officials to provide sanitary facilities and mental health treatment to young people confined there.

In its recent newsletter, the Center reported that low-income Latino immigrants in the South are routinely the targets of wage theft, racial profiling and other abuses driven by an anti-immigrant climate that harms all Latinos regardless of their immigration status.

Morris and the Southern Poverty Law Center are doing vital work in our nation's courtroom and classrooms. As long as hate groups seek to divide us and as long as their exists vulnerable and disenfranchised groups of people among us, Morris' work will be crucial to our nation's well-being.

Morris and the Law Center never charge their clients any legal fees, and they accept no government money.

I urge you to support them in whatever way you can. Visit the Center's website to learn more: http://www.splcenter.org/

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