Morris Dees, the co-founder of Southern Poverty Law Center, was born in 1936 and grew up on a small cotton farm in Alabama. His parents didn’t own the land, but the family worked it, alongside many African-Americans. That experience was integral to his development as someone who leads the charge against hate and intolerance through his work with the SPLC, a non-profit legal organization that works to eradicate hate and intolerance through education and litigation.
“My daddy was a progressive-minded person, not a racist like his brothers who were members of the Klan, starting in 1954 with Brown v. Board,” Dees said. “Dad ran a small cotton gin and the black people liked us in the community. We weren’t card-carrying liberals or anything like that, we were just fair-minded people. He was killed in a car wreck in 1960. When that happened, as many blacks came to the funeral as white people did, which is quite unusual.”
It was during that same time, when Dees was in law school at the University of Alabama that he began participating in integration activities and actively advocating against discrimination. Eleven years later, in 1971, he took his law firm, which focused on Civil Rights issues, and incorporated it to become the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Dees will be in St. Louis on Tuesday as a part of a St. Louis Speakers Series panel discussing “Racism in America.” While Dees expects the panel to stay away from overt references to the current political climate in the panel on Tuesday, he said that Donald Trump had “made race a serious issue.”
“This has been one of the worst political years for racial issues — not just African Americans, but Latinos, Muslims, so many other different groups,” Dees said. “You could have a program on this that would last several days and you could not say it all.
“… SPLC does not endorse candidates, but we also bring out things we deal with like hate. Never has hate been such a focus in a political campaign, whether it be blacks, Latinos, people coming from different Arab countries by a man who is appealing to middle class whites, most of them not educated.”
The SPLC works to combat such issues of education through several programs:
- monitoring hate groups
- providing law enforcement resources to combat extremist groups
- “teaching tolerance” through film kits, a magazine, and teaching resources
- Litigating cases in children’s rights, economic justice, immigrant justice, LGBT rights and mass incarceration
When asked how he felt about racism and discrimination in America today compared to his childhood, Dees said the following:
“I’m happy and dismayed. I’m happy that we’ve had such changes that young people, particularly minorities, don’t even think about where they came from. On the other hand, the issues have changed. Young people take for granted that they have these rights and all they have to do is go out there and they will be honored. That’s not necessarily true.”
What: St. Louis Speakers Series Presents a Panel Discussion: Racism in America
When: Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 8:00 p.m.
Where: Powell Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103
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