- Morris Dees
Co-founder, Southern Poverty Law Center
San Francisco State University
From the cotton fields of Alabama to the courtrooms of America, Mr. Morris Dees has immersed himself in the struggle for civil rights. As a boy, he worked side by side with African Americans on his family’s cotton farm, where his family’s values stood in stark contrast to Jim Crow practices elsewhere. Though keenly attuned to the struggle for equality, he initially chose another career, earning both undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Alabama and becoming a highly successful book publisher. In 1970, with proceeds from his company’s sale, Mr. Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Center has achieved international recognition for its victories against the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, its tracking of hate groups, and its tolerance-education programs. With both litigation and education strategies, the Center has become one of America’s most successful public interest law firms.
Its first case, which desegregated the Montgomery, Alabama YMCA (1971), was a landmark ruling, as were many to come.
But the cases for which the Center and Mr. Dees are best known are those against hate groups and white supremacists, most notably the Ku Klux Klan. Mr. Dees determined that the effective way to shut down such organizations was to help victims of racial violence sue both individuals and the groups themselves for monetary damages. The result has been numerous multimillion dollar verdicts. The Center works pro bono; private donations cover the litigation costs.
In 1980, responding to a resurgence of organized racist activity, the Center founded the Intelligence Project to monitor hate groups and develop legal strategies to protect citizens. To strike at the source of intolerance, the Center created its Teaching Tolerance program in 1990, now used in 80,000 schools.
Mr. Dees’ many awards include the Young Lawyers Distinguished Service Award of the American Bar Association; the Roger Baldwin Award from the ACLU; and selection as Trial Lawyer of the Year by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
In recognition of work that has reshaped the legal and social landscape for victims of discrimination, the Board of Trustees of the California State University and San Francisco State University are proud to confer upon Morris Dees the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.