The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


A follower of Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday we remembered Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps today we could remember Morris Dees.

Almost 40 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream became Dees' dream. When two African-American women and their young sons walked into Dees' law office in Montgomery, Ala., he couldn't ignore the hurt in the little boys' eyes. The women wanted their children to attend a summer swim camp, but the segregated Montgomery YMCA refused them.

It was 1969. Dees wasn't a civil rights lawyer back then, but he sued the YMCA and won. Thus began the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1971 with another courageous young lawyer, Joe Levin.

Since then the center has gone up against the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and other hate groups, putting many units out of business, not only in the South but around the nation. All settlements go to the victims, and the center charges no fees.

In 1987 the center bankrupted the United Klans of America with a $7 million judgment for the mom of an African-American teen who had been lynched by Klansmen. She was awarded the title to the group's 7,500-square-foot headquarters. This was the same Klan group that in 1963 bombed a church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also bankrupted the Idaho-based Aryan Nations with a $6 million settlement. They've also just won a lawsuit against the leader of the Imperial Klans of America for viciously beating an African-American teenager in Kentucky. And now they're going after other Klan leaders and a compound where they hold hate-rock music fests.

For his efforts, the Ku Klux Klan has burned Dees' law office and tried to kill him.

Meanwhile the center is partnering with schools to teach tolerance to children: thousands of schools across the U.S. have ordered free education kits. The first of these video-and-text kits (there are now 13), "America's Civil Rights Movement," received an Oscar and top education awards.

Visit www.splcenter.org for information on the center's work, including a map (www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-map) of where various hate groups are active in the U.S.

"Over a lifetime of fighting hate, I've learned that we can never be silent in the face of intolerance," Dees said. "We can never fear the consequences of standing up to hate. And we can never be indifferent to acts of injustice." 


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February issue


Embracing diversity