To his admirers, Morris Dees is one of the nation's top civil rights lawyers, a man who put his life on the line for racial justice by facing down Klansmen and neo-Nazis in court. NBC broadcast a made-for-TV movie about him. Life Magazine named him a hero of the year for 1998. U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, one of the heroes of the 1960s' civil rights confrontations, has called Dees "one of the most persistent seekers of truth and justice in the South."
All this positive attention helps put the chief trial counsel for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center in constant demand as a speaker across the nation - producing a busy schedule of appearances that will bring him to Roanoke College on Thursday.
To his critics, Dees is not so much a crusader for justice as a slick showman who uses fears of racial violence to enrich himself and his organization. They say SPLC is primarily a fund-raising machine that sucks donations away from other civil rights organizations. SPLC, these detractors say, does little to address difficult issues - such as voting rights and affirmative action - that are of more concern among poor and minority Americans than the acts of scattered Ku Klux Klan groups and right-wing militias.
Stephen Bright of the Southern Center of Human Rights, an Atlanta- based anti-death-penalty group, calls Dees "a fraud and a con man" who has "milked a lot of very wonderful, well-intentioned people."
A scathing article in the November 2000 Harper's Magazine quoted one critic who called Dees the "Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement." The article charged that SPLC relies on emotional pleas that suggest the organization is under terrible financial stress, skirting the fact that SPLC is the wealthiest civil rights group in America.
The American Institute of Philanthropy gives SPLC one of its lowest grades for a civil rights group - a D - because it says the center carries excessive reserves that go well beyond what it needs to fund its programs. The institute's August 2003 Charity Rating Guide & Watchdog Report calculates that SPLC could operate for another 4.7 years without raising another dollar.
Dees says SPLC has a $110 million endowment, and he'd love to push it higher - to $400 million or $500 million - in order to ensure the center's long-term financial stability and allow it to continue and expand its myriad programs.
"We're building it for the future - as colleges do," Dees said. The center's current annual budget is about $20 million, he said, and it would need a huge endowment to be able to quit raising cash and operate only off the interest from its accumulated funds.
Against the handful of news stories that have criticized SPLC, Dees said, "I can show you 500 articles that are positive."
SPLC is "not a tiny little law firm down here doing storefront legal work," he said - it's a nationally respected education organization that reaches millions of schoolchildren with its Teaching Tolerance publications and Oscar-winning film productions. "People like Steve Bright and that little guy who wrote the hatchet- job article [in Harper's], they don't understand that," Dees said.
Morris Dees' life story is a fascinating tale. He was born in Alabama in 1936, the son of a farmer and cotton gin operator. As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, he founded a nationwide direct-mail sales and publishing business. He earned a law degree from the university and opened a law office in Montgomery, the state capital.
In those days, Dees didn't show much of a commitment to racial justice. One of his earliest cases involved the defense of a Klansman accused of beating a journalist who was trying to cover the Freedom Rides civil rights protests.
Dees became a millionaire selling cookbooks, tractor seats and other products through the mail. But in 1967, according to his autobiography, a night of soul-searching prompted him to dedicate himself to fighting for victims of racism.
He filed suit to integrate the Montgomery YMCA and, in 1971, joined with his law partner, Joseph Levin, to found the Southern Poverty Law Center.
SPLC pressed numerous cases attacking segregation in Alabama, but it didn't begin reaping nationwide attention until it won big- dollar lawsuits against white-supremacist groups. In 1987, he won a $7 million jury verdict for the mother of a black lynching victim in Alabama. In 1990, Dees and SPLC won a $12.5 million judgment from an Oregon jury that held the White Aryan Resistance responsible for the beating death of an Ethiopian immigrant.
The organization says that its legal efforts have also helped improve mental health care for prison inmates, forced reforms in juvenile justice and worked on behalf of poor people in danger of being forced out of their homes by urban renewal.
In recent years, SPLC's work has evolved to include education about prejudice and tolerance, information for police officers about hate crimes and memorials to civil rights heroes and martyrs. Dees says the center distributes about $7 million in education materials each year, free to more than 80,000 schools. Some 600,000 teachers get SPLC's Teaching Tolerance magazine, he says. "We probably reach 30 million students a year."
Critics such as Bright say SPLC's education efforts do some good, but considering its wealth and resources, it doesn't do enough to attack continuing discrimination in America's justice system and other public institutions. And they charge that SPLC's high-profile court victories are overblown. Bright calls them "publicity stunts."
Harper's reported that SPLC's $7 million verdict against the United Klans of America netted $51,875 for the lynching victim's mother - the proceeds of the sale of the Klan organization's only asset, a warehouse. Meanwhile, according to a 1994 series of stories in the Montgomery Advertiser, SPLC raised $9 million from fund- raising appeals highlighting the case.
Over the years, some black ex-employees have also criticized SPLC as a place where white folks call the shots and where minority employees suffer discrimination; a former intern told the Advertiser that "the center is guilty of some of the same things that they are out there protesting against and filing lawsuits over."
SPLC denies that it has discriminated against employees, and Dees says that far-right white supremacists are still a danger in America.
Dees insists that those who criticize him simply resent his achievements in building the SPLC into an institution that now employs 125 people and is housed in a new 60,000-square-foot headquarters. As he told USA Today in 1996: "I'm white. I had a business that made money. I wasn't active in the civil rights movement. Some in the old civil rights crowd may see me as an interloper because the [SPLC] is such a success."