- 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
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
who was raised as a Southern
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.
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.”
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
Enthralled with his affluence, Dees in the 1960s purchased
a lavish 6,000
on a 200-acre
complete with a pool, tennis courts, and stables.
While living the high life, Dees
experienced an epiphany of sorts in
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:
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
the promises of the civil-rights movement became a reality for all,”
his marketing/publishing enterprise and, in
1971, formally incorporated
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.
key to SPLC's early success was the experience Dees gained as finance
director for Democrat George McGovern’s failed 1972 presidential
raised more than $24
numbers by the standards of that era—for McGovern. So grateful was
for Dees's efforts on his behalf, that the senator subsequently
to let the SPLC founder use his mailing list of campaign donors as a
resource for soliciting contributions to the nascent civil-rights
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
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."
Wypijewski, who writes for the far-left Nation
“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
no more than 3,000 people nationwide—a
far cry from the 4
million members it had boasted in the 1920s. Nonetheless,
“Dees would have his
believe” that cadres of “militia nuts” are “lurking around
a similar vein, the late left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn in
2009 called Dees the “arch-salesman
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
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
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
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."
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
to raise money,” Turnipseed told Cox News Service. “Some of his
gimmicks are just so transparent, but they’re good.”
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.”
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
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.
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