01/14/2005

SPLC Founder Helps Community Honor Dr. King

EVERETT, Wash. -- With a series of race-related incidents in the recent past here, communities in Snohomish County looked to Center co-founder Morris Dees to help celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday this year.

King was born on January 15, 1929. The national holiday honoring him is Monday, as specified by Congress.

Dees spoke at three gatherings, including an assembly of 1,500 students at Arlington High School. He said King would be especially proud of four Arlington students who organized an anti-racism rally in support of a black family who had a cross burned on their lawn last March.

Their effort to promote tolerance and understanding "makes me proud to be an American," Dees said.

Other local hate incidents last year included a cross burning in Edmonds, a racial epithet painted on a car in Everett, and alleged harassment at Monroe High School.

Dees talked about the struggles King faced as he led the modern Civil Rights Movement. "He had to face terrorists with no conscience, politicians with no backbone, and many of his contemporaries who had no vision," he said.

Dees also spoke at Shoreline Community College and at a community celebration at the Everett Conference Center. There he was joined by Washington's new governor, Christine Gregoire, in her first official appearance outside the state capital since her inauguration Wednesday.

Listening attentively as Dees spoke was Bill Keenan, whose family became part of history when Dees and the Center filed a lawsuit against the late Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler on their behalf (see Keenan v. Aryan Nations). In July 1999, Butler's followers assaulted and shot at Keenan's son Jason and Keenan's ex-wife, Victoria.

The resulting judgment against Butler was the largest civil damages award in Idaho history, a $6.3 million penalty that ultimately ended the white supremacist's operation there. Butler's 20-acre compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho, was seized, sold and donated to a college for use as a peaceful outdoor laboratory.

"I think Morris Dees is probably one of the few people in America who has literally put his life on the line to protect our rights, and to stand up for people who have been discriminated against in this country by hate groups," Keenan told The Seattle Times.

Two other communities are using the Center's expertise in their King commemorations. Outreach coordinator Tafeni English will conduct a diversity workshop open to the public on Saturday at the Penn Center in Beaufort County, South Carolina. On January 20, Jennifer Holladay, director of the Center's tolerance programs, will speak on "White People Dismantling Racism" at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.