Morris Dees, one of the primary lawyers responsible for deconstructing the Aryan Nations in North Idaho, will speak at 3:30 p.m. today in the Student Union Building Ballroom as this year’s guest for the Bellwood Memorial Lecture Series.
Dees speech, titled “Justice for all in a changing America,” will focus on comparing human and civil rights issues prevalent in the U.S. today to those faced by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
“It couldn’t be at a better time when we’re finding a small group of congressmen are holding the country hostage because they’re trying to get rid of Obamacare … because they just don’t happen to like it,” Dees said. “It’s a movement, I’m sure, Dr. King would be on the forefront of in Washington to get health care to the masses of people who don’t have it.”
Dees is the co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dees became involved in the campaign to remove racial hate groups across the South and in North Idaho, when he took on the case of a client who was attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1980s.
“We took on a case of a black guy who had shot a Klansman and almost killed him because the Klan was attacking him,” Dees said. “We used cases like that against these hate groups and put them out of business.”
Dees and a team of lawyers from the SPLC developed a strategy that used civil lawsuits against groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations of North Idaho. Dees helped his clients sue the organizations for wrongful acts against the clients, and when he won, the courts seized the groups’ assets such as money, land and buildings, which put them out of business. In 2001, Dees won a $6.5 million case against the Aryan Nations located north of Coeur d’Alene.
Although many of the groups disbanded due to bankruptcy, Dees said many of them reformed under different names and different leaders and many of the ideas of the hate groups still exist today.
“What I found today that’s changed is if you take the rhetoric and the publications of the Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan, the Skinhead movement and all those … the rhetoric they were pushing back then is actually become mainstream today,” Dees said. “You can get on Fox television and hear basically the same things they were saying back then. Obviously, not in the same terms, but they got their spokespeople right there in some of these Rush Limbaugh types.”
Dees said he will also address what he believes is the real issue facing America today — a fear of changing demographics.
“When I started practicing law in 1960, 15 percent of people in our country were people of color,” Dees said.
Today that number is 36 percent, Dees said, and it’s projected to reach more than 50 percent in the next 20 to 30 years.
“That’s frightening a lot of people who don’t want people who are different from them being in control of this country,” Dees said. “And with President Obama, he represents this frightening future — especially the Tea Party types — feel is coming.”
Dees said race is not the only changing demographic making people uncomfortable. LGBTQA issues, women’s right issues and economic justice are just a few of the things, Dees said, are still causing significant tension in the U.S. political system.
“I don’t think Martin Luther King or anybody else thought that ‘I have a dream’ meant that everything was going to be solved when African Americans got the right to vote,” Dees said. “The back of the bus is not ridden by black people today. They get in where they want to, but from an economic standpoint, we have an enormous disparity in job opportunities and income.”
Dees said he is honored to have been asked to speak at the Bellwood Memorial Lecture — the largest endowed lectureship at the University of Idaho. Dees speech will mark the 17th anniversary of the lecture series.
Dees said he is looking forward to speaking in an area that was heavily impacted by his legal work. Dees said North Idaho, though still very conservative, has made significant progress toward inclusiveness since the early 2000s.
“I think this area is a predominately white area but there are still issues facing it,” Dees said. “But the Northwest Coalition for Human Rights has done an excellent job in moving the region forward.”
Kaitlyn Krasselt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org