Morris Dees has been using the law to fight hate groups for 30 years

Coerur d'Alene Press, Tuesday / August 22, 2000
By Eric Flowers

COEUR d'ALENE -- Ten years ago, a Portland, Ore., jury sat before Morris Dees and heard him explain how a white supremacist group whipped its members into a rage that lead to the murder of a Somalian immigrant. Based on what it heard, the jury awarded $12.5 million to the family of Mulugeta Seraw.

Next week, Dees will step into another courtroom, this time in Kootenai County, and ask 12 North Idaho residents to award a similar judgment to Victoria Keenan -- the woman attacked two years ago by members of the Aryan Nations security force outside the white supremacists' compound north of Hayden Lake.

Dees, a well-known and nationally respected civil rights trial attorney, has made a living suing hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and now the Aryan Nations.

His work in the field is considered to be a pioneering effort in the area of civil rights litigation. He has won landmark verdicts in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and boasts a prefect court record against hate groups he has taken on through his Southern Poverty Law Center.

Dees founded the organization almost 30 years ago in Alabama. Its mission, today as it was then, is to balance the scales of justice by acting as an advocate for the underclass.

The center has grown from rather humble beginnings into an internationally recognized organization with the financial and legal clout to take on some of the most powerful and well-organized hate groups in the country. Because of his legal battles with hate groups, Dees has been the target of death threats, harassment and character attacks. He is reviled by members of groups like the Aryan Nations. In 1983, Klan members destroyed the SPLC office in an arson attack.

When he arrives in North Idaho he will not be alone. In addition to a cadre of SPLC attorneys, a team of security guards will be watching Dees' every move.

Despite the obvious dangers, Dees remains committed to his effort to bankrupt organizations like the Aryan Nations. Those who know Dees say he is driven by a passion for justice that stems back to his days as a child in the Deep South.

"I think that having been raised in Montgomery or at least in a farming community near Montgomery, and experiencing on a real daily basis the tension between blacks and whites and the treatment of the whites toward the blacks had a lasting effect," said Joe Levin, a longtime friend and co-founder of SPLC.

Dees saw firsthand the legacy of slavery in a pre-desegregation South. Many blacks, notes Dees in his autobiography, "A Season for Justice," had failed to rise above the level of abject poverty, often toiling for a marginal existence as sharecroppers or tenant farmers.

Despite Dees' hopes of becoming a minister or farmer -- he was named State Farmer of Alabama while still a high school student by the Alabama Future Farmers of America -- his father urged him to study law.

In his autobiography, Dees describes how he got his first taste of litigation as a teen-ager. His father asked him to defend a black man working as a hired hand on his family's farm against drunk driving charges. He lost, but it sparked an interest in law and a desire to seek justice for those who might otherwise be unable to find it for themselves, Dees wrote. Those who know him say it's a passion that burns within him just as strongly today as it did then.

Bill Wassmuth, a former Coeur d'Alene priest who helped to organize the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Rights, said Dees' motivation comes from within.

"It's a basic fundamental belief in the principles of our country and the principles of justice, equality and fair play," Wassmuth said. However, it was years before Dees turned his full attention to civil rights law. He made his fortune in the mid- '60s with a publishing company that he eventually sold to Times Mirror Corp., owner of the Los Angeles Times. By 1971 he had shifted his career focus to civil rights law and founded SPLC with Levin and black activist Julian Bond.

The center's purpose at the time was to file suits that would help implement the recently passed Federal Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the years since, Dees and the center have greatly expanded their reach. The center has filed numerous lawsuits on behalf of victims of racism, prison inmates and hate crimes.

In the 1980s, Dees observed the resurgence of the Klan in the South and targeted its activities with strategic civil lawsuits. In 1987, the center won a $7 million verdict against the United Klans, a powerful arm of the Klan, following the brutal killing of a 19-year-old black man in Mobile, Ala. As a result, the group was forced to turn over its primary asset, its headquarters, to the victim's mother. He has won other cases against the Klan in his home state and Texas where a group Klansmen harassed and attacked Vietnamese fishermen off the coast of Galveston.

More recently, the center has focused its attention on anti-government militias and other white supremacist groups. The SPLC's Portland suit targeted well-known racist organizer Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance.

In addition to the court cases, the center has acted as a watchdog against extremist groups. Since 1981, SPLC has published Klanwatch, a magazine that tracks the groups' activities throughout the country. In 1994, the center established a Militia Task Force to monitor anti-government groups, particularly those with racist ties.

Levin said the center has expanded its focus to include education as a key component. The center has contributed millions of dollars to fund programs teaching tolerance to school children. The idea is to reach kids with a positive message at a young age.

"The work that brings us into court litigating against white supremacists is important, but it is not the core of what we do," Levin said.

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