Southern Poverty Law Center founders Morris Dees and Joe Levin were recognized recently for the work of the SPLC when the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) gave them its 2005 Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award.
Levin accepted the award at a luncheon on Saturday, on behalf of himself and Dees, from Secretary of State John Gale (R-NE), who nominated the pair for the award.
"It is my honor to present this award to two men who truly exemplify the ideals it represents," Gale said. "We honor Morris Dees and Joseph Levin for their passion for justice, for the freedom of all citizens to enjoy their constitutional rights and to participate in the democratic system of fair and honest elections."
In accepting the award, Levin cited one of the Center's early voting rights class actions as one with significant impact throughout Alabama. The reapportionment lawsuit resulted in equitable representation of blacks in the state legislature.
Before the reapportionment lawsuit, there were only two African American representatives serving in the Alabama House. After the lawsuit, the 1974 election sent 15 black representatives to the House, and two black state senators were elected. They represented 14 percent of the House's 105 members and 6 percent of the Senate's 35.
Today, there are eight black senators (23 percent) and 27 representatives (26 percent), numbers that mirror the percentage of backs in Alabama.
Established in 1992, the Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award is named after the former U.S. senator from Maine, who jeopardized her career by speaking out against the "red baiting" tactics of Senator Joseph P. McCarthy in the 1950s. Recipients of the annual award are recognized for similar acts of political courage, uncommon character and selfless action in the realm of public service.
Nominees are chosen from America's current crop of public leaders.
1992 - Margaret Chase Smith, U.S. Senator who criticized the "red baiting" tactics of Senator Joseph P. McCarthy in her famous "Declaration of Conscience" speech.
1993 - Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, civil rights heroine
1994 - Elizabeth Dole, president of the American Red Cross
1995 - Jim and Sarah Brady, gun safety advocates
1996 - Daisy Bates, civil rights advocate
1997 - Eunice Kennedy Shriver, established Special Olympics
1998 - George J. Mitchell, peace agreement in Northern Ireland
1999 - Doris "Granny D" Haddock, campaign finance reform advocate
2000 - Former U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, public stand against apartheid in South Africa
2001 - Robert Parrish Moses, the Algebra Project
2002 - Former President Jimmy Carter, world peace and democracy advocate
2003 - Former U.S. Senate majority leader Bob Dole, ADA legislation
2004 - Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Mayor of the World"