Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, was not always aware of the racial issues that have plagued the United States. Dees grew up on a cotton farm in rural Alabama where segregation was all he knew.
“I wanted to pick cotton but I had to go to school,” Dees said. “My black friends had to pick the cotton and they didn’t get to go to school. I didn’t know any better.”
It wasn’t until Dees became a lawyer and took on a case representing a group of Vietnamese immigrants who were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, that he realized the importance of diversity.
Michael Satz, College of Law interim dean, introduced Dees as this year’s guest for the Bellwood Memorial Lecture Series — the largest endowed lectureship at UI.
As an elementary school child in the 1970s, Satz didn’t understand the prejudice and racism that existed in the United States.
Satz watched his small, African-American bus driver argue with a group of construction workers who threw rocks at his bus. He said it wasn’t until law school that he understood the magnitude of what happened that day.
“It was 20 years later I realized he wasn’t just standing up for a bunch of kids on a bus, he was standing up for all minorities,” Satz said. “He became my hero that day. It was an extraordinary and brave choice made by an ordinary man.”
Like Satz’s bus driver, Dees understood the racial tensions in the U.S. when he took on civil cases that would eventually lead to the downfall of white supremacist groups across the country. In 2001, Dees successfully closed down an Aryan Nations group located north of Coeur d’Alene with a $6.5 million civil case that effectively eliminated all of the group’s assets.
“Dees is also a hero,” Satz said. “He made a choice to have an impact and he did in my life as an African American.”
Dees lecture, titled “Justice for all in a changing America,” focused on the comparisons that can be made between what is happening in the U.S. government today and what was happening in the U.S. 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington.
“We’re seeing our government held hostage by a small group of people who are concerned and — I want to say — afraid of our changing nation,” Dees said.
Dees helped the Vietnamese immigrants win their case, which allowed them to fish in the South without fear of persecution from the Knights of the KKK. Dees was invited to the blessing of the fleet — a Vietnamese tradition that sent good luck with the fishermen as they set off to catch shrimp.
“For the first time, I realized our country is great because of our diversity and not in spite of it,” Dees said.
Dees said he believes that by the end of the century, the United States will have elected a Latino president and a female president because of a generational shift that recognizes the importance of diversity.
“You have to be the ones to look out across this nation to see if you really do feel like there is justice for all,” Dees said.
He said he believes that King would have intended for the message from his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech to still be relevant in today’s society.
“He might say I have a dream that in the red clay hills — and he might add — in the ghettos and on the reservations … the sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave owners — and he might add — the poor, the rich, the educated, the LGBT members … will sit around the table of personhood and love one another,” Dees said. “When I’m gone and a lot of these other white-haired people are gone, people are going to look back and tell the story of America’s greatest generation.”
The Bellwood Memorial Lecture Series was started in memory of Sherman J. Bellwood. Bellwood earned his undergraduate degree from UI in 1939, and later spent 20 years as an Idaho District Court judge.
Kaitlyn Krasselt can be reached at email@example.com