Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, was recognized Tuesday for a legal career dedicated to seeking justice and equality for all when the American Bar Association presented him with the ABA Medal – the organization’s highest award.
Dees, honored during the association’s annual meeting in Chicago, received a standing ovation from the ABA’s House of Delegates, the association’s policymaking body of more than 500 members.
“I am honored and humbled to receive this award from the American Bar Association,” Dees said afterward. “But this award isn’t just about me. It’s also a tribute to the talented SPLC employees dedicated to ensuring that what began as a small civil rights law firm I helped found four decades ago will always be there for the disenfranchised.”
The ABA Medal, which recognizes “exceptionally distinguished service by a lawyer or lawyers to the cause of American jurisprudence,” is given only when the ABA Board of Governors determines a nominee “has provided exceptional and distinguished service to the law and the legal profession,” according to the ABA.
SPLC Founder Morris Dees accepts his award from the ABA.
“The presentation of the ABA Medal to Morris Seligman Dees Jr. represents our profound admiration for his personal courage and incomparable leadership as one of the greatest civil rights lawyers of our time,” said outgoing ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III. He said Dees is “an outstanding example of a lawyer who, case by case, is moving our country toward tolerance and equality.”
Previous ABA Medal recipients include Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan Jr. and Sandra Day O’Connor. Other recipients include Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski; Judge Patricia Wald, a member of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; and human rights activist the Rev. Robert Drinan.
Dees told the ABA how his civil rights work wasn’t always popular in the Deep South. He was thankful for the attorneys working by his side at the SPLC as well as supporters of the SPLC’s work. He also praised the judges and juries who accepted the task of providing a fair trial to the hate groups the SPLC took to court on behalf of their victims.
Dees’ legal career was shaped by the career of Clarence Darrow, an attorney who left the corporate world to follow his conscience and take cases on behalf of the powerless – cases that made history. Dees read Darrow’s autobiography while delayed overnight at an airport in 1968, and was inspired.
Dees sold his successful book-publishing business and, with fellow lawyer Joe Levin, founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., in 1971. Their goal was to provide a voice for the disenfranchised. Though the Civil Rights Movement had ushered in the promise of racial equality, it was apparent to Dees, the son of an Alabama farmer, that the nation’s new civil rights laws had yet to bring real and fundamental changes needed in the South.
“I had made up my mind,” Dees wrote in his autobiography, A Season for Justice. “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. It did not matter what my neighbors would think, or the judges, the bankers, or even my relatives.”
Dees and Levin took pro bono cases few others were willing to pursue – the outcome of which had far-reaching effects. Early lawsuits brought the desegregation of recreational facilities, the reapportionment of the Alabama Legislature, the integration of the Alabama State Troopers and reforms in the state prison system.
Confronting hate groups
Dees also pioneered a legal strategy to hold organized hate groups responsible for the violence of their members. This strategy has allowed the SPLC to shut down some of the nation’s most dangerous hate groups by winning crushing, multimillion-dollar jury verdicts on behalf of their victims.
It has also made Dees and the SPLC an enemy of extremists across the country. The SPLC’s office was firebombed by Klansmen in 1983, and Dees has received numerous threats against his life during his long career.
The SPLC also has helped to dismantle institutional racism in the South, reform juvenile justice practices, shatter barriers to equality for women, children and the disabled, and protect low-wage immigrant workers from abuse. It has reached out to the next generation, too, with Teaching Tolerance, a program that provides educators with free classroom materials that teach students the value of tolerance and diversity.
Dees’ efforts have earned him several other accolades. He was named one of 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal in 2006. He has also been awarded Trial Lawyer of the Year from the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association and the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice. He has received more than 20 honorary degrees. In 1991, NBC aired a made-for-TV movie, Line of Fire, about Dees and his landmark legal victories against the Ku Klux Klan.
More work ahead
But Dees noted that awards also serve as reminders that the work of the SPLC is far from complete. The nation is growing increasingly diverse and the changing demographics are fueling the growth of hate groups and creating numerous challenges that demand the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Our work is probably needed now more than ever,” Dees said.
The SPLC, a leading expert on hate and extremism, continues to monitor a record number of hate groups and extremists across the country. It also provides training to law enforcement officers to ensure they are equipped with the latest intelligence about the threats posed by these groups.
The SPLC’s legal projects also are tackling some of the nation’s most pressing civil rights issues.
Its LGBT rights project is dedicated to defending the rights of this community, whether it’s ensuring students are safe from anti-LGBT bullying at school or fighting discrimination faced by LGBT adults.
The SPLC’s immigrant justice project is leading the fight against vicious anti-immigrant laws as well as protecting the rights of exploited immigrant guestworkers.
And throughout the Southeast, the SPLC has juvenile justice and education reform projects to prevent at-risk children from being pushed into the criminal justice system.
“There’s still a lot of work ahead,” Dees said. “But this award shows that when people come together to create a more just and tolerant society, they can bring much-needed change to this country.”