Morris Seligman Dees was born into a farming family in Shorter, Alabama on December 16, 1936. While attending the University of Alabama Law School in the late 1950s, Dees and fellow student Millard Fuller—the latter of whom would eventually go on to found Habitat for Humanity—together established the Fuller & Dees Marketing Group. In this endeavor, the pair used direct-mail solicitation to sell cookbooks and a wide variety of other publications and products; their venture quickly grew into one of the largest and most lucrative publishing firms in the South.
In 1958 Dees served as the state campaign manager for segregationist attorney-general candidate McDonald Gallion; he also worked for the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace. According to Fuller: “We wanted to be sure of having friends in high places.” Dees continued to devote much of his energy to the Fuller & Dees Marketing Group even after graduating from law school in 1960. He and Fuller also formed their own law practice based in Montgomery.
Raised as a Southern Baptist, Dees claims that 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 1965, Dees bought out Fuller’s share of the marketing firm. Dees continued to have great success in that field, and he was eventually inducted into the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. Enthralled with his own 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. But he experienced an epiphany of sorts in 1967 — during what he describes as a “night of soul searching at a snowed-in Cincinnati airport” — and decided that he would sell his business and “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, this epiphany was sparked by his realization that “little had changed in the South” because “whites held the power and had no intention of voluntarily sharing it.”
In 1969 Dees sold his marketing/publishing enterprise to the Times Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, and resolved to “specialize in civil rights law.” In 1971 he used the profits from that sale to formally incorporate — in conjunction with with Julian Bond and Joseph Levin — the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center (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.
A key to SPLC’s early success was the experience Dees gained as finance director for Democrat George McGovern’s failed 1972 presidential campaign. In that role, 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 work 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.
In 1976, Dees, hopeful of being named U.S. Attorney General, served as a national finance director for Jimmy Carter‘s presidential run. But Dees 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!” he said.
Dees was the architect of one of SPLC’s most effective—and most controversial—tactics: exaggerating the prevalence and capabilities of racist and extremist right-wing groups operating in the United States in order to frighten SPLC supporters into donating money to the organization. In accordance with this strategy, the Center has routinely initiated “innovative lawsuits” against prominent hate groups for crimes that their individual members have committed. The liberal/leftist writer Ken Silverstein, who in 2000 wrote a penetrating exposé of SPLC for Harper’s magazine, notes that the targets of these suits tend to be “mediagenic villains” who are “eager to show off their swastikas for the news cameras.” As Dees and SPLC well comprehend, such figures stand the best chance of triggering an emotional public response that translates, in turn, into financial contributions from donors eager to combat the perceived threat.
For example, in 1987 SPLC launched a massive direct-mail fundraising campaign based on the success it had recently achieved in a United Klans of America case, and this resulted in some $9 million in donations to the Center. As the City Journal puts it: “The die was cast; henceforth, the SPLC would pursue essentially meaningless but headline-grabbing cases, exploiting its uncollectible verdicts through sensational fundraising appeals that generated massive donations.” In the words of a disgruntled former SPLC attorney: “[Dees] was on the Klan kick because it was such an easy target — easy to beat in court, easy to raise big money on.”
Dees repeatedly tailored his fundraising tactics to suit the needs of the moment. The renowned anti-death-penalty lawyer (and former Dees associate) Millard Farmer points out, for instance, that SPLC, at one point, largely stopped taking capital-punishment cases for fear that a visible opposition to the death penalty might alienate would-be donors. Similarly, Ken Silverstein notes that “in 1986, the Center’s entire legal staff quit in protest of Dees’s refusal to address issues—such as homelessness, voter registration, and affirmative action—that they considered far more pertinent to poor minorities, if far less marketable to affluent benefactors, than fighting the KKK.” 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.”
In the mid-1990s, Dees again jumped aboard the bandwagon of alleged racial crimes. At an April 1996 news conference in Washington, he 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, Dees’s 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’s claim was unfounded. While black church burnings were indeed occurring at a slightly higher-than-usual rate, there certainly had not been any kind of dramatic rise in the incidence of such events. Arsons in black churches always had been, and still were, relatively uncommon occurrences. In fact, recent years had brought a significant decline in church burnings – black and white alike. Specifically, in this country of 300,000 houses of worship, there were 520 fires to churches and related properties in 1994—far fewer than the 1,420 church arsons of 1980. Between 1990 and 1996, the yearly average was about 600. During that same six-year period, a grand total of about 80 black churches were burned—just a shade under 14 per year. There would have had to be some 80 black church arsons each year to be roughly proportional, per capita, to white church arsons.
The strategy of depicting America as a bastion of unremitting racism was immensely profitable for Dees and his organization. Several studies conducted in the 1990s indicated that the Dees and other top SPLC executives earned significantly higher salaries than the leaders of most non-profit organizations. Because SPLC perennially disburses twice as much money on fundraising as it does on legal services (while skimming off substantial amounts of revenue for its own endowment), Dees’s large income provoked accusations of fraud. Stephen Bright, a Yale law professor and president of the Southern Center for Human Rights—a left-wing 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 fraud and a con man,” and derided 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, [and] the fact that you spend so much, accomplish so little, and promote yourself so shamelessly.” On another occasion, Bright wrote of Dees: “He has taken advantage of naïve, well-meaning people—some of moderate or low incomes—who believe his pitches and give to his [then] $175 million operation. He has spent most of what they have sent him to raise still more millions, pay high salaries, and promote himself.”
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes for the far-left Nation magazine, said in February 2001: “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 noted, “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 described Dees as the “arch-salesman of hate-mongering” and as a man who had profited greatly 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.”
“He’s the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil-rights movement,” attorney Millard Farmer once said of Dees, “though I don’t mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye.” In 1994, former SPLC legal fellow Pamela Summers was quoted saying that Dees and his SPLC cohorts were “drowning in their own affluence” because their “sole, overriding goal is to make money.” And the Baltimore Sun has characterized 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.”
Dees’s fundraising tactics were as varied as they were 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.”
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. By 2016, SPLC’s assets had grown to $319.28 million – all of it in a massive endowment fund that was not used to bankroll any civil-rights programs.
After the turn of the 21st century, Dees devoted considerable energy to providing legal counsel 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 U.S.-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 (later renamed 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.” He has been a millionaire since the 1960s, and he owns at least two homes in Alabama, including a vast 210-acre estate where he resides with his fifth wife.
On March 14, 2019, SPLC announced that it had fired Dees, and suggested that misconduct by Dees had played a role in the decision. Said SPLC president Richard Cohen in a statement:
“Effective yesterday, Morris Dees’ employment at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was terminated. As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world. When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action. Today we announced a number of immediate, concrete next steps we’re taking, including bringing in an outside organization to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices, to ensure that our talented staff is working in the environment that they deserve – one in which all voices are heard and all staff members are respected.”
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