Penn State Harrisburg

Civil rights advocate Morris Dees speaks on campus April 8

Morris Dees

Morris Dees

Internationally acclaimed civil rights advocate Morris Dees caps the ambitious, year-long Penn State Harrisburg diversity lecture series when he delivers a 6 p.m. free public lecture Tuesday, April 8 in the Student Center of the Capital Union Building.

As founder and chief trial counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., Dees has been a pioneer in suing hate groups and mapping new directions for the nonprofit organization.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Penn State in 2002.

In 1967, Dees had achieved extraordinary business success with his book publishing company. The son of an Alabama farmer, he witnessed firsthand the painful consequences of prejudice and racial injustice. He sympathized with the Civil Rights Movement, but had not become actively involved. A night of soul searching in a snowed-in Cincinnati airport changed his life, inspiring Dees to leave his safe, business-as-usual world and undertake a new mission.

“When the plane landed in Chicago, I was ready to take that first step, to speak out for my black friends who will still disenfranchised even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Dees wrote in his autobiography, Season for Justice. “Little had changed in the South. Whites held the power and had no intention of voluntarily sharing it. I had made up my mind. I would sell the company as soon as possible and specialize in civil rights law.”

He continues, “All the things in my life that had brought me to this point, all the pulls and tugs of conscience, found a singular peace. It did not matter what my neighbors would think, or the judges, the bankers, or even my relatives.”

Out of this deeply personal moment grew the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After his epiphany in 1967, he began taking controversial cases that were highly unpopular in the white community. He filed suit to stop construction of a white university in an Alabama city that already had a predominantly black state college. In 1969, he filed suit to integrate the all-white Montgomery YMCA.

As he continued to pursue equal opportunities for minorities and the poor, Dees and his law partner saw the need for a nonprofit organization dedicated to seeking justice. In 1971, the two lawyers founded the Southern Poverty Law Center and civil rights activist Julian Bond became its first president

Dees has received numerous awards in conjunction with his work at the center. He has been named trial lawyer of the year by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice and was presented the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award by the National Education Association. The American Bar Association gave him its Young Lawyers Distinguished Service Award and the American Civil Liberties Union honored him with its Roger Baldwin Award.

Dees’ autobiography was published in 1991 and re-released by the American Bar Association in 2001 as A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story. His second book, Hate on Trial: The Case Against America’s Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi, was published in 1993. It chronicles the trial and $12.5 million judgment against white supremacist Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance group for their responsibility in the beating death of a young black student in Portland. Ore. In his third book,Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat, Dees exposes the danger posed by today’s domestic terror groups.

For information on Dees’ presentation, phone 717-948-6180.