Morris Dees tells students to fight for equality

Photo of Morris Dees

Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, gives the keynote address, "With Justice For All," at the Wake Forest University School of Law's annual Public Interest Retreat in the Worrell Professional Center on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011.

Morris Dees’ soft drawl belies the fire that the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center still carries for work that befits Wake Forest University’s motto, pro humanitate, or for humanity.

Speaking before a couple of hundred law students – as well as faculty members and the public – for the school’s annual Public Interest Retreat on Friday, Feb. 4, Dees pushed students to remember that they are to treat people fairly and that all deserve an equal opportunity.

“That’s what Dr. King fought for – justice,’’ Dees said. “It doesn’t mean that you leave your conscience on the ground floor if you work for a large corporate law firm.’’

Dees, 74, used real-life examples during his 45-minute keynote address to illustrate how lawyers and leaders made a difference. Among those he cited for going above and beyond were John Quincy Adams, Clarence Darrow and Martin Luther King Jr. His stories were frequently interrupted with chuckles by the appreciative audience, and, on occasion, dead silence as he spoke the truth about shameful moments.

The Adams story he told centered on the Boston Massacre, when the man who would later become president, took on the unpleasant task of defending Redcoats who had fired into a mob of angry colonists. Dees said Adams later wrote that it was the best piece of service he ever did for his country because he was “making sure the rule of law, not the mob, served the country.’’

Dees held his audience rapt as he spun out a tale about Darrow and his approach to defending a man who tried to organize a union at a window manufacturing plant in Appleton, Wis., in 1920. Dees told how Darrow spent months in Appleton, getting to know the people of the community, those who would serve as jurors during the trial.

And though the union organizer had clearly violated a state law by trying to persuade workers to form a union, Darrow was able, Dees said, to show how the owner of the plant had neither raised his children in local schools nor bought a car locally, despite his belief that he was a good citizen.

Darrow’s tactic was to get the jurors to see a broader picture of unfairness, he said.

“That’s what a great lawyer is about,’’ he said, “making sure the jury knows what it’s all about. Sometimes the laws we have are unjust.’’

From Darrow, Dees moved on to talk about King’s fears for the United States to survive as a democracy in the months before his “I Have a Dream’’ speech in Washington, D.C. Dees imagined that if King were alive today, he might make some minor adjustments in that speech to acknowledge the inequities faced by people living in barrios, ghettos and on reservations. And that he would point out the need to serve people who are homeless, poor and powerless, the kind of people the Southern Poverty Law Center has served in its work since Dees founded the Montgomery, Ala.-based organization in 1971. The center won many groundbreaking civil rights cases to help integrate government and its institutions. In later years, Dees led the SPLC to file civil lawsuits that helped cripple hate groups, winning large judgments against the organizations.

 Today, he said, the most significant work being done by the SPLC has to do with justice for immigrants, he said. He told of a mother who the organization helped get back a child taken from her at birth because she couldn’t speak English. And of employers and labor bosses who cheat workers out of their fair wages.

“This labor immigrant issue,’’ Dees said, “is probably the biggest cause for the increase in hate groups.’’

To the future lawyers before him, Dees issued a challenge – to make sure they work to reduce the “pain and suffering of those treated as second class.”

Always, he said, “lawyers have played an important role in making sure we have liberty and justice for all.’’

The message resonated with students.

Paige Sova, a first-year law student, said Dees was “definitely inspirational’’ because of the way he used real-life examples. Hearing a person talk outside of the cases and contracts is important, she said.

Likewise, first-year student Kristina Wolf said she found it fascinating how Dees “brought in history so well’’ and how people such as Adams and King “had to stand up in their times.’’

Third-year student Bianca Hudson said she hopes to go into public interest law upon graduation. Hudson, who founded the Immigration Law Society at Wake, said one thing was clear from Dees.

“I think the struggles are still there,’’ she said. “Just the faces have changed.’’