Photograph of Morris S. Dees

Morris S. Dees

December 15, 2000

Morris S. Dees

"What a privilege to be here on the planet to contribute your unique donation to humankind. Each face in the rainbow of colors that populate our world is precious and special. " - Morris Dees

Morris S. Dees, Jr., born December 1936, is a lawyer and civil rights activist who is known for founding the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) with American attorney Joseph Levin in 1971 in Montgomery, Alabama. Under Dees’s leadership, the SPLC won several unprecedented lawsuits against hate organizations and their leaders.

Dees was the son of Morris Seligman Dees, a tenant cotton farmer, and Annie Ruth Dees. Although he was brought up in segregationist Alabama, his parents imparted strong Christian values, and he experienced warm interactions with African American families.

Dees received an undergraduate degree and a law degree (1960) from the University of Alabama. He then became a successful entrepreneur in the direct-mail publishing business with American lawyer and entrepreneur Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Dees bought Fuller out of the business in 1965. He sold the company to the Times Mirror Company in 1967 after reading Clarence Darrow’s The Story of My Life (1932), which provoked him into committing his full attention to a law practice devoted to civil rights legislation. The law firm, which he shared with Levin, evolved into the SPLC in 1971.

Dees’s legal career was marked by a number of landmark cases and decisions. His efforts helped to integrate the Montgomery, Alabama, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in 1969. He succeeded in integrating, on a one-to-one ratio, the Alabama State Troopers, the same entity that had beaten civil rights activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. His efforts also forced the redistricting of the Alabama legislature, which enabled black voters to participate at last in the political process.

The SPLC introduced lawsuits that held white supremacist organizations financially and criminally responsible for murders and other unlawful actions against immigrants and persons of color. In the late 1970s, in response to an alarming increase in white supremacist activity, Dees made combating extremism one of his priorities. After a young black student was lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1981, Dees filed a civil suit on behalf of the victim’s family and named as a defendant the United Klans of America, the same hate group that had blown up Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. The resulting $7 million verdict bankrupted the Klan and led to a string of lawsuits against other hate groups.

Despite the critical advances against hate organizations, Dees’s decision to make such lawsuits an SPLC priority prompted some of its personnel who disagreed with the new legal focus to leave the organization. Additionally, critics outside the SPLC accused Dees of drawing few distinctions between white supremacists and groups that support limits to immigration, controls on population growth, or the right to bear arms.

Although race was his primary focus, Mr. Dees has taken on other human rights issues as well. He and his organization have challenged the death penalty in Alabama and improved conditions in that state’s prisons and mental health facilities. A current focus is the plight of recent immigrants. The Center has recently brought a number of class actions against employers who violate the human rights of these workers and has issued major reports detailing the conditions faced by guest workers and other low-wage immigrants.

To keep young people from coming under the influence of hate groups, Dees created the Teaching Tolerance project in 1992, providing teachers with free educational tools to help them instill in their students an appreciation of diversity and democratic values.

During the 1970s and ’80s Dees was a prominent Democratic fund-raiser for presidential candidate George McGovern, President Jimmy Carter, and Senator Ted Kennedy. His books included Hate on Trial: The Case Against America’s Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi (1993) and Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat (1996). In addition, Dees received numerous awards, including the ABA Medal (2012), the highest honor bestowed by the American Bar Association.

In March 2019 Dees was fired from the SPLC. Although no cause was given for his termination, the organization stated that it was “committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world.”