Morris Dees Biography

Journalist, Civil Rights Activist, Lawyer(1936–)
Civil rights lawyer Morris Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, which addresses cases of racial discrimination and combats the power of hate groups.

Synopsis

Attorney Morris Dees was born on December 16, 1936, in Shorter, Alabama. In 1971, Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC gained attention for its innovative tactics against hate groups, such as filing civil suits claiming damages for the violence incited by these groups. After the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald, the SPLC helped his mother receive a $7 million judgment.

Early Life

Civil rights lawyer Morris Dees was born Morris Seligman Dees Jr. on December 16, 1936, in Shorter, Alabama. He was the oldest of five children. Dees's parents were tenant farmers who also operated a cotton gin.

Dees was a resourceful child. At a young age, he started earning money by buying, rearing and selling pigs. As a teen, he sold scraps from his parents' cotton gin as mulch. Dees managed to accumulate approximately $5,000 in savings by the time he graduated from high school in 1955.

At his parents' urging, Dees enrolled at the University of Alabama, where he would earn both his undergraduate and law degrees. In 1956, while he was an undergraduate, Dees witnessed crowds of white people—including members of the Ku Klux Klan—verbally and physically harass Autherine Lucy, a classmate who was the first African-American to attend the University of Alabama.  The scene revolted Dees and would resonate with him in the years to come.

Businessman to Civil Rights Lawyer

While he was still in school, Dees teamed up with a friend, Millard Fuller, to start a direct-mail business. When Dees graduated from law school in 1960, he and Fuller formed their own law practice in Montgomery, Alabama. They also grew their business, Fuller and Dees Marketing, to include a multimillion-dollar publishing venture. Dees bought out Fuller's share of the business in 1965.

Stuck at an airport one night, Dees happened to read Clarence Darrow's autobiography, a book that would change the direction of his career. In his own autobiography, A Season for Justice (1991), Dees explained: "I had made up my mind. I would sell the company as soon as possible and specialize in civil rights law. 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."

After deciding to refocus his career, Dees handled cases such as filing a suit to integrate Montgomery's YMCA. In 1969, he sold his company for several million dollars, which gave him more time to defend others' civil rights.

Southern Poverty Law Center

In 1971, Dees worked with fellow attorney Joseph J. Levin Jr. and civil rights activist Julian Bond to found the Southern Poverty Law Center. Based in Montgomery, the not-for-profit agency was formed to "combat hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation."

While at the SPLC, Dees worked on a strategy of filing civil suits against hate groups, claiming damages for the violence incited by these groups. One high-profile case where he applied this strategy was the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald, a crime committed by three Klan members. With the assistance of Dees and the SPLC, Donald's mother was awarded a $7 million settlement from the United Klans of America, bankrupting the group.

Over the years, the kinds of cases Dees handled led to his receiving death threats, but that has not kept him from continuing to investigate hate activity throughout the United States. In a 2009 letter to Congress, Dees requested that measures be taken to prevent members of extremist groups from serving in the military. In 2012, Dees was awarded the American Bar Association's ABA Medal for his dedication to the pursuit of tolerance, justice and equality.

Personal Life

Dees's autobiography was reissued by the ABA in 2001, retitled as A Lawyer's Journey: The Morris Dees Story. In addition to his autobiography, Dees has written Hate on Trial: The Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi (1993) and Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat (1996). He was also the subject of a made-for-television movie, Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story (1991).

During his senior year of high school, Dees married Beverly Crum. The couple had two sons together before divorcing in the late 1960s. Dees next married Maureene Buck, a former employee. Dees and Buck had one daughter together. After they divorced, Dees married his third wife, Mary Farmer, the director of an abortion clinic. Following the end of his marriage to Farmer, he wed Elizabeth Breen. Dees's fifth wife is Susan Star.

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