Civil rights attorney addresses crowded Assembly Series
Over the course of his legal career, civil rights lawyer and activist Morris Dees has confronted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and the Christian Knights for the KKK. Receiving death threats and having his offices burned have not stopped him from continuing to fight in the legal arena against such groups.
As he spoke to a packed Graham Chapel audience Wednesday, Dees relayed several of his legal victories, including his civil suit against Tom Metzger, the leader of WAR from whom Dees won a $12.5 million lawsuit after the beating death of a young Ethiopian. The man, Mulugeta Seraw, was killed in 1988 by East Side White Pride skinheads in Portland, Oregon.
Dees focused on the idea of what one person can do if he or she stands up to hate.
“You are the leaders of the future of this nation. Each of you will have an opportunity in some way, small or big, to make a difference. And I know that you, too, like Dr. King. will not be satisfied until justice truly rolls down like waters,” said Dees.
There was no time after Dees’ speech for audience questions, so he directed those with questions to the SPLC website.
“I think he totally caught the essence of the divide in our society, not only in terms of race or religion or. the social divide, but also looking at the institutional, economic, and political divide that we have,” said Philip Hong, a third-year student at the School of Social Work. “He provided a vision of where this country should go.”
“His point is well taken by many people, and yet he leaves us with the question of whether this can actually be a reality in the future,” Hong added. “And he leaves us with the hope [that it can be a reality].”
When Dees gave up his flourishing book publishing company and co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 1971, Dees felt that as a champion of minority rights in the South, he was in a largely unpopular position. But Dees said that he and his law partner, Joseph J. Levin, Jr., were tired of what they saw as the lack of civil rights progress being made in Alabama. So they decided that the time had come for a non-profit organization like the SPLC.
“I had made up my mind. I would sell the company as soon as possible and specialize in civil rights law,” Dees writes in a statement on the SPLC website. “All the things in my life. had brought me to this point.. It did not matter what my neighbors would think, or the judges, the bankers, or even my relatives.”
The mission of the organization when it was founded was to gain equal rights for the poor and minority populations by working on riskier, higher-impact cases that most attorneys would be unable to take on because of a lack of resources. Today, the SPLC is still dedicated to fighting segregation, battling hate groups and working for the victims of hate crimes, by shutting down extremist groups and winning monetary damages from groups like WAR and the KKK.
In an article from the February 1995 issue of Trial, a publication of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Chief Trial Counsel Dees and Ellen Bowden, a SPLC staff attorney, documented the large proportions of hate crime in the United States, including its motivation of over 100 murders since 1990, and the FBI’s count of at least 7,684 hate crimes in 1993.
The article stated, “Hate crimes know no geographic boundaries. Once most associated with violence in the South, hate crimes have touched every region of the country in recent years.
“No group is immune. Once most associated with violence against blacks by whites, hate crimes now count Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, gays, lesbians, blacks and whites among their victims.”
Dees said that when he and the SPLC go after large organizations that preach hate, they target the leaders of these groups, as opposed to the individual perpetrators of hate crimes. The actual perpetrators are often impressionable, alienated, angry, young people without any serious financial resources, said Dees. Rather than going after these people at the bottom rungs of an organization, the SPLC aims for the leaders who might prove to have been vicariously responsible for the hate crime through the theory of aiding and abetting.
“Hate groups and their leaders are much more apt to have resources than the youths whose actions they direct,” wrote Dees and Bowden in the Trial article. “Thus, successful civil suits against hate groups and their leaders also provide victims a remedy they would otherwise not have.”
According to the SPLC website, in addition to the court system, the organization also “encourage[s] local prosecutors and lawmakers to take all hate-motivated crimes seriously by increasing prosecutions and enacting tougher laws. [and] to pursue civil remedies for victims.”
Though he cannot directly prevent hate crimes like the beating death of Mulugeta Seraw, Dees said he continues to do his part to seek justice for the victims of these crimes. Thanks in large part to Dees, the $12.5 million taken from Tom Metzger has helped put Seraw’s son through college.
Throughout the years, SPLC adopted new programs to educate people about hate crimes and the prevention of violence. In Spring 1992, the first issue of the semi-annual Teaching Tolerance magazine, “which showcases innovative, replicable anti-bias activities and initiatives from schools across the country,” was sent to over 100,000 teachers. According to the SPLC website, these free materials and curriculum packages “demonstrate Teaching Tolerance’s continued commitment to helping schools and teachers access and implement the best anti-bias ideas available.”
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