2001

Morris S. Dees, Jr. and the Southern Poverty Law Center

…expose the racial intolerance of the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, and other white supremacist groups, with a completeness of detail and with a fervor to protect those individuals threatened and attacked by these violent organizations…


 Morris S. Dees, Jr., founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Photo SPLC.

Morris S. Dees, Jr., founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Photo SPLC.

In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement had permanently changed the laws regarding segregation of black and white people in many aspects of life. But in reality, especially in the South, the new laws were not put into practice. African Americans were still denied many opportunities for basic things, including a good education, a job, and a decent living; at the time, not many lawyers were interested in tackling these racial inequalities. Morris S. Dees, Jr. and the Southern Poverty Law Center took on the task and continue to do so today. 

Dees grew up in Alabama, earning a law degree while running a successful direct-mail book publishing business. He knew of racial segregation as a way of life and in his initial law career with Joseph Levin, he was successful with lawsuits to integrate places such as the YMCA, the Alabama State Troopers, and government offices, while winning reforms for the state prisons. By 1971, deciding to focus all of his energies on fighting discrimination and hate groups, Dees sold his book publishing company, and together with Levin founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC. 

The SPLC is “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.” The Center employs a strategy of filing civil rights lawsuits (pro bono if necessary) to disrupt the actions of hate groups against individuals. If their suit is won, SPLC is then able to take control of the assets of the group to pay the damages awarded to either the victim or the victim’s family. For example, the SPLC successfully sued the Ku Klux Klan for millions of dollars in the lynching of a young black man named Michael Donald on behalf of his mother. In that instance, the amount of the award meant that the Klan went bankrupt in order to pay the damages. With this method of attack, SPLC could, if not stop the hate groups/white supremacists altogether, financially force them to regroup, sometimes into smaller groups with less power, money, and influence. 

Although litigation to protect civil rights is a large part of SPLC, they do much more in their mission to create a more socially just and equal society. They constantly monitor hate groups and domestic terrorists in the U.S., and have a “hate map” on their website documenting the spread of known groups across the country. They publish two blogs—Hatewatch, which disseminates information on hate and extremist activities, and Teaching Tolerance, which discusses embracing diversity in schools. SPLC also runs a program called Teaching Tolerance, offering resources, materials, and curriculum ideas to help teachers educate their students about acceptance and equality. 

Using this three-pronged approach, Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center strive to bring about real and lasting change to the country. Their commitment to breaking up hate groups by financially ruining them was innovative from the beginning and is still effective today. By publishing where the hate groups live and work, providing as much information as possible to the public, and offering tools to teach against hate, SPLC enables people to take an active role in the fight against discrimination and inequality in their own communities.