Swope Endowed Lectureship: Morris S. Dees, Jr.

Morris Dees Jr.Morris Dees was born in 1936 at Shorter, Alabama, the son of a farmer and cotton gin operator. He was very active in agriculture during high school and was named the Star Farmer of Alabama in 1955 by the Alabama Future Farmers of America.

Mr. Dees attended undergraduate school at the University of Alabama where he founded a nationwide direct mail sales company that specialized in book publishing. After graduation from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1960, he returned to Montgomery, Alabama, where he opened a law office and continued his mail order business.

The direct mail publishing business (Fuller & Dees Marketing Group) grew to be one of the largest publishing companies in the South. The company pioneered mail sales of much needed children's sex education books. Its New Horizon division published the nation's first aerospace encyclopedia in conjunction with the National Aeronautical and Space Administration and The Smithsonian Institute. Sales reached $15 million. In 1969, Mr. Dees sold the company to Times Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times.

In recognition of his publishing work and his efforts to encourage young people to become active in the business world, Mr. Dees was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America in 1966 by the U.S Jaycees.

During the civil rights movement, Mr. Dees became active aiding minorities in court. In 1967, he filed suit to stop construction of a white university in an Alabama city that already had a predominantly black state college. In 1968, he filed suit to integrate the all-white Montgomery YMCA. Along with Joseph J. Levin Jr. and Julian Bond, he founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971.

The Center, supported by contributions from almost 500,000 citizens across the nation, has engaged in civil rights lawsuits ranging from the defense of Joan Little in North Carolina to the integration of the Alabama State Troopers.

In 1980, the Center founded Klanwatch in response to a resurgence in organized racist activity. The project monitors hate groups and develops legal strategies for protecting citizens from violence-prone groups. On January 25, 1991, a made-for-television movie about Mr. Dees aired on NBC. "Line of Fire" describes his successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan. It included the $7 million precedent-setting judgement against the United Klans of America on behalf of the mother of Michael Donald, a young black man lynched by the Klan in Mobile, Alabama.

To help educate young people about the civil rights movement, Mr. Dees developed the idea for The Civil Rights Memorial. Designed by Maya Lin, the Memorial bears the names of 40 men, women and children who lost their lives during the civil rights movement. Ten thousand people attended the dedication of the Memorial in Montgomery in 1989.

Mr. Dees has received numerous honors and awards in conjunction with his work at the Center. He was named Trial Lawyer of the Year by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice in 1987, given the Public Service Achievement Award from Common Cause in 1988, received the Roger Baldwin Award from the American Civil Liberties Union in 1989, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award from the Hollywood Women's Political Committee in 1991, the William O. Douglas Award from Public Counsel in 1992, the First Amendment Award from the Houston Trial Lawyers Foundation in 1996, the Civil Rights Award from the National Bar Association in 1998 and the Faith and Humanity Award from the National Council of Jewish Women in 1999.

In May 1991, Mr. Dees received a special Humanitarian Award from Direct Marketing Day in New York in recognition of the skillful application of his direct marketing talents for "the principles of justice and fair play" through his work at the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 1998, he was named to the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame.

In addition to applying his direct mail marketing skills to raising money for civil rights activities, Mr. Dees revolutionized political fundraising. In 1972, he was George McGovern's Finance Director, raising over $24 million from 600,000 small donors. This was the first time a presidential campaign had been financed with small gifts by mail.

Mr. Dees is Chief Trial Counsel and Chair of the Executive Committee for the Southern Poverty Law Center. He devotes his time to suing violent white supremacist groups and developing ideas for Teaching Tolerance, the Center's education project. The Center has distributed free to schools over three million Teaching Tolerance magazines and more than 55,000 teaching kits of each of the first and second in a series of six video-and-text tolerance education kits. The video in the first kit, "A Time for Justice," won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary in 1995. The video in the second kit, "The Shadow of Hate, A History of Intolerance in America," was nominated for Best Short Documentary in 1996.

Mr. Dees' autobiography, A Season For Justice, was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1991. Hate on Trial chronicles the trial and $12.5 million judgement against white supremacist Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance group for their responsibility in the beating death by Skinheads of a young black student in Portland, Oregon. His latest book, Gathering Storm: America's Malitia Threat, exposes the danger posed by today's domestic terrorist groups. It is published by HarperCollins Publishers.

A made-for-television movie about Morris Dees' life, Line of Fire, aired on NBC in 1991. Actor Corbin Bernson portrayed Dees in the film. In Ghosts of Mississippi, a feature film released in 1996 about the life of slain civil rights worker, Medgar Evers, he was portrayed by actor Wayne Rogers.

Mr. Dees lives on a ranch in Mathews, Alabama. He has three sons, Morris III, a physician, and John and Black, both builders. His daughter, Ellie, has a masters in art education.