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MORRIS DEES Printer Friendly Page
Major Introductory Resources:

The Church of Morris Dees
By Ken Silverstein
November 2000

King of Fearmongers: Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Scaring Donors Since 1971
By Charlotte Allen
April 15, 2013

Morris Dees Fact Sheet
By JRBooks Online

The Southern Poverty Law Center - A Twisted Definition of 'Hate'
By Matthew Vadum
November 2006


Additional Resources:

Good News: SPLC Loses $50 Million. Bad News: $PLC Can Afford It.
By Patrick Cleburne
April 8, 2009

The Southern Poverty Law Center -- No Artistry in its Smears
By Don Feder
November 28, 2007

Gaza in Arizona
By Debbie Schlussel
August 29, 2005

2 Illegal Immigrants Win Arizona Ranch in Court
By Andrew Pollack
August 19, 2005


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  • Founder and chief trial lawyer of the Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Exaggerates the prevalence and capabilities of rightwing racist and extremist groups operating in the United States




Morris Seligman Dees is the founder and chief trial lawyer of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Dees was born into a Shorter, Alabama farming family in 1936. While attending the University of Alabama Law School in the late 1950s, Dees had formed a business partnership (Fuller & Dees Marketing Group) with fellow student Millard Fuller, who would eventually go on to found Habitat for Humanity. The pair used direct-mail solicitation to strike it rich selling cookbooks and a host of other products, and their venture eventually grew into one of the largest publishing firms in the South.

Dees, who was raised as a Southern Baptist, says he “learned everything I know about hustling” from his early experiences in church: “Spending Sundays on those hard benches listening to the preacher pitch salvation—why, it was like getting a Ph.D. in selling.” Fuller, for his part, recalls that he and Dees “shared the overriding purpose of making a pile of money” and becoming “independently rich,” though “we were not particular about how we did it.” The veracity of that acknowledgment was evidenced in 1961, when Dees and Fuller, serving as defense attorneys for a white racist who had viciously beaten a journalist covering Freedom Riders in the South, had their legal fees paid by the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1960 Dees graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law and continued to run his business until the late Sixties, when “a night of soul searching at a snowed-in Cincinnati airport” led him to sell his company to the Times Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times. Dees professed an eagerness to “speak out for [his] black friends who were still ‘disenfranchised’ even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” “I had made up my mind,” he would write  in his 1991 autobiography A Season for Justice, “I would sell the company as soon as possible and specialize in civil rights law.”

Dees and Fuller ended their business association in 1965, but Dees continued to rake in mounds of cash via direct marketing; so great was his success, that he would eventually be inducted into the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. Enthralled with his affluence, Dees in the 1960s purchased a lavish 6,000 square-foot home on a 200-acre estate complete with a pool, tennis courts, and stables. While living the high life, Dees experienced an epiphany of sorts in 1967 and decided to “speak out for my black friends who were still ‘disenfranchised’ even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” As he would later write in his autobiography, A Season for Justice: “Little had changed in the South. Whites held the power and had no intention of voluntarily sharing it.” This would become the template for Dees' view of race in America for the rest of his adult life. Determined to help “ensure that the promises of the civil-rights movement became a reality for all,” he sold his marketing/publishing enterprise and, in 1971, formally incorporated SPLC as a tax-exempt, charitable organization. Notwithstanding the ostensibly selfless aims of this endeavor, SPLC would prove to be more lucrative for Dees than anything he had ever done as a marketer.

In 1971 Dees used the funds from the Times Mirror sale to establish the Montgomery-based SPLC with Julian Bond and attorney Joseph Levin.

A key to SPLC's early success was the experience Dees gained as finance director for Democrat George McGovern’s failed 1972 presidential campaign. All told, Dees raised more than $24 million from nearly 700,000 small donors—impressive numbers by the standards of that era—for McGovern. So grateful was McGovern for Dees's efforts on his behalf, that the senator subsequently agreed to let the SPLC founder use his mailing list of campaign donors as a resource for soliciting contributions to the nascent civil-rights group.

In 1975 Dees was arrested and removed from court for attempting to suborn perjury (by means of a bribe) on behalf of the defendant in a North Carolina murder trial. Though the felony charge against Dees was subsequently dropped, the presiding judge refused to re-admit him to the case; that refusal was upheld on appeal.

Dees has represented SPLC in a number of high-profile legal victories against hate and extremist groups, propelling the organization into the national spotlight. These included lawsuits against the Ku Klux Klan, the United Klans of America, and the White Aryan Resistance.

Dees is known to be the architect of one of SPLC's most effective—and most controversial—tactics: exaggerating the prevalence and capabilities of racist and extremist rightwing groups operating in the United States in order to frighten supporters into donating money to SPLC.

Many critics charge that this fundraising revenue, instead of bankrolling SPLC's civil rights work, is funneled disproportionately into the coffers of SPLC officers like Dees. Several studies conducted in the 1990s indicated that the Dees and other top SPLC figures earned significantly higher salaries than the leaders of most non-profit organizations.

Because SPLC perennially disburses twice as much on fundraising as it does on legal services (while skimming off substantial amounts of revenue for its own endowment), Dees' income has provoked accusations of fraud. Stephen Bright, a director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a leftwing Atlanta-based group that opposes the death penalty, put it bluntly in a 1996 letter to Dees, in which he denounced the latter as a "a fraud and a conman," and upbraided Dees because "you spend so much, accomplish so little, and promote yourself shamelessly."

JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes for the far-left Nation magazine, says: “No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of [hate] groups than [SPLC's] millionaire huckster, Morris Dees, who in 1999 began a begging [fundraising] letter, 'Dear Friend, The danger presented by the Klan is greater now than at any time in the past ten years.'” To put Dees's claim in perspective, the Klan, by that time, consisted of no more than 3,000 people nationwide—a far cry from the 4 million members it had boasted in the 1920s. Nonetheless, Wypijewski notes, “Dees would have his donors believe” that cadres of “militia nuts” are “lurking around every corner.”

In a similar vein, the late left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn in 2009 called Dees the “arch-salesman of hate-mongering,” a man who profited by “selling the notion there’s a right resurgence out there in the hinterland with massed legions of haters, ready to march down Main Street draped in Klan robes, a copy of Mein Kampf tucked under one arm and a Bible under the other.” “Ever since 1971,” added Cockburn, “U.S. Postal Service mailbags have bulged with [Dees's] fundraising letters, scaring dollars out of the pockets of trembling liberals aghast at his lurid depictions of hate-sodden America.”

The accusations against Dees have also come from some of the people closest to him. As Dees’ onetime business partner Millard Fuller once said: “Morris and I ... shared the overriding purpose of making a pile of money. We were not particular about how we did it; we just wanted to be independently rich.”

In 1986, SPLC’s entire legal staff quit in an act of defiance against Dees for his pursuit of lucrative, high-profile cases against the KKK, in preference to working to secure civil liberties for the poor. Speaking to reporters, SPLC attorney Gloria Browne candidly admitted that the Center's programs were devised to cash in on “black pain and white guilt.”

Asked about his knack for generating revenue, Dees once boasted,  "I learned everything I know about hustling from the Baptist Church. Spending Sundays on those hard benches listening to the preacher pitch salvation -- why, it was like getting a Ph.D. in selling."

Dees's fundraising tactics are as varied as they are creative. In a 1985 fundraising letter to zip codes where many Jewish residents lived, he made conspicuous use of his Jewish-sounding middle name, Seligman, in his signature at the end of the document. Attorney Tom Turnipseed, a former Dees associate, recounts how, on another occasion, Dees distributed a fundraising letter with “about six different stamps” affixed to the return envelope, so as to make it appear that “they had to cobble them all together to come up with 35 cents.” “Morris loves to raise money,” Turnipseed told Cox News Service. “Some of his gimmicks are just so transparent, but they’re good.”

“He's the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil-rights movement,” attorney Millard Farmer says of Dees, “though I don't mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye.” According to former SPLC legal fellow Pamela Summers, “What they are doing in the [SPLC] legal department is not done for the best interest of everybody [but] is done as though the sole, overriding goal is to make money. They’re drowning in their own affluence.” The Baltimore Sun characterizes SPLC's operations this way: “Its business is fundraising, and its success at raking in the cash is based on its ability to sell gullible people on the idea that present-day America is awash in white racism and anti-Semitism, which it will fight tooth-and-nail as the public interest law firm it purports to be.” Perhaps the strongest rebuke comes from Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who in 1996 called Dees “a fraud and a con man,” deriding him for “your failure to respond to the most desperate needs of the poor and powerless despite your millions upon millions, your fund-raising techniques, the fact that you spend so much, accomplish so little, and promote yourself so shamelessly.”


As of 2000, SPLC’s assets exceeded $120 million; that same year, the organization spent twice as much on fundraising efforts as on legal services for victims of civil rights abuses. Accordingly, the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog group, gave SPLC one of the worst ratings of all of the organizations it monitored.

"They're drowning in their own affluence," former SPLC legal fellow Pamela Summers told The Montgomery Advertiser. "What they are doing in the legal department is not done for the best interest of everybody [but] is done as though the sole, overriding goal is to make money." "I think people associate the SPLC with going to court," added Summers. "And that's why they get the money. And they don't go to court."

In 1976, Dees, hopeful of being named U.S. Attorney General, served as a national finance director for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. But he rapidly lost enthusiasm for what he perceived as the campaign's ideological and tactical moderation. "You've got to have a candidate who is way out on the extremes!" said Dees.

Dees also acted as a fundraiser for both Ted Kennedy's 1980 and Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaigns, and he received their mailing lists as part of his compensation.

After SPLC won a highly publicized settlement against the Ku Klax Klan—a case that earned Dees $350,000—Dees' life became the plot of a doting TV movie, 1991's Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story, with Dees played by the actor Corbin Bernson.

In 1996 Dees wrote, along with reporter James Corcoran, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat.

At an April 1996 news conference in Washington, Dees announced that there had been a recent spate of black church burnings in the South which "certainly" had been carried out "by racists." Over time, his repeated allegations about a racially motivated arson epidemic helped fuel widespread public concern. Outraged civil rights activists nationwide demanded an investigation. It was ultimately learned, however, that Dees' claim was unfounded.

Dees was again in the spotlight in the fall of 2000, when he narrated an HBO documentary, titled Hate.com, about extremism in America. But critics noted that while Dees and SPLC regularly condemned rightwing extremist and nationalist groups, they consistently failed to apply similar scrutiny to leftwing hate groups. In recent years, Dees has worked to provide legal representation for illegal aliens. In 2005, for example, he represented two El Salvadorans in a lawsuit against the vigilante group Ranch Rescue, which was charged with using force to keep these illegals from sneaking across the Mexican border. Dees and SPLC won the case and achieved, as settlement, the transfer of the group’s 70-acre property and headquarters to the plaintiffs. “Certainly it’s poetic justice that these undocumented workers [now] own this land,” Dees said. P { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }A:link { }

In the summer of 2012, the Obama Justice Department hosted Dees as a featured speaker at a “diversity training event” for some of its employees in Washington, DC.

Over the years, Dees has contributed money to the campaigns of a number of political candidates, all of them Democrats and Independents. Among the more notable recipients of his funding were John Edwards, John Kerry, Ralph Nader, Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Julian Bond, Ted Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter.

Dees has received awards from a number of leftist groups. In 1987 he was named “Trial Lawyer of the Year” by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. In 1990 he received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association (NEA). In 1993 he was given the Humanitarian Award by his alma mater, the University of Alabama. In 2001 he earned the NEA's Friend of Education Award for “exemplary contributions to education, tolerance and civil rights.” Dees is also a past winner of the ACLU's Roger Baldwin Award.

Dees has been a frequent speaker on college campuses across the United States and has collected, according to his SPLC biography, "at least 25 honorary degrees."

 

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