c. 1999 Religion News Service
MONTGOMERY, Ala. _ To get into the Southern Poverty Law Center building two blocks from the state Capitol here, you have to enter a gray hut with armed guards, surveillance cameras and state-of-the-art equipment that examines anything capable of holding a weapon or explosive.
One of the guards will greet you as you walk toward the hut. The guard will ask for your name and your driver’s license, and then the guard will see if your name is on a sheet that lists the center’s visitors for the day.
It’s a dangerous business, this quest to “bankrupt bigots,” as Morris Dees describes the Center’s mission. All these hate groups keep popping up _ the World Church of the Creator and the Aryan Nations, to name two in the news _ and Dees, co-founder of the center, is among their primary targets.
“There is,” says Dees, sitting in his small, stylish office, “a lot of bias and prejudice and hate out there.”
Because he is so high-profile, because he appears frequently on television, because his life has been portrayed in a TV movie (“Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story,” starring Corbin Bernsen), he is natural prey for assassins.
He has appeared at the top of a hit list compiled by a group thought responsible for murdering a Jewish radio talk-show host. He has seen the center’s original building destroyed by arsonists. He has been the subject of this banner carried by Ku Klux Klansmen from Arkansas at a march in 1991: “MORRIS DEES: ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”
He is, for sure, one of the best-known enemies of white supremacists in America _ a distinction he carries with such pride that he knows the number of people who have been imprisoned for threatening to kill him or bomb the center.
“Thirty-five,” he says. “Most of them aren’t from around here.”
Dees rattles off a sampling of America’s dark side: 9,000 hate crimes reported annually by the FBI, 550 hate groups, 250 Web sites devoted to hate.
Something else Dees wants you to know: About 95 percent of hate crimes aren’t committed by hate groups. They’re committed by the next-door neighbor, he says, the guy who is anti-Semitic or violently opposed to interracial marriages.
And something else: A large number of hate crimes are never reported, he says.
The ones we know about _ like the ones this summer in Los Angeles and suburban Chicago _ are just the latest examples of the intolerance that, by Dees’ estimate, has been growing for the last five or six years.
After the August shootings at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, Dees appeared on program after program, discussing the Aryan Nations _ the group suspect Buford O. Furrow was associated with and one of several groups Dees monitors.
In Wilmette, Ill., an upscale Chicago suburb, neighbors and acquaintances of Benjamin Smith, the son of a doctor, tried to account for a July shooting spree that left two dead and eight injured _ all members of racial or religious minorities. Smith was a member of the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group. He shot himself during a police chase.
The faces of hate are harder to spot than they used to be, Dees says. Today they are worn by the likes of Matt Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator.
Hale is a 27-year-old law school graduate. He wears a coat and tie and a well-pressed dress shirt. He doesn’t chew tobacco or chomp on cigars smoked down to the tip, as the faces of hate did in the days of Bull Connor. He speaks confidently enough to appear on national TV talk shows.”It’s getting more serious,” Dees says of hate crimes. “We’re getting a wider range of people, a greater spectrum”_ younger, more affluent hate criminals; kids who feel isolated, who are influenced in part by the Internet, who are looking for ways to express their biases. We’re getting, he says,”a new breed of racist extremist.””As we move into the next century, race relations will be divisive,”Dees says.”It will be the leading social issue for the next 10 or 20 years.” Dees’ office is on a corner of the second floor of the Southern Poverty Law Center, with an expansive view of downtown Montgomery, the city he has lived near almost all of his life.
He is 62 years old, but his trim physique and rugged attire _ right now he’s in a black T-shirt and jeans _ make him look more like a ranch hand than a retirement candidate. As fit as he appears, Dees needs protection. A squadron of plainclothes security guards accompanies him when he travels.
He has retained security since the center opened in 1971. “It was the reality of the situation,” Dees says.
The Southern Poverty Law Center grew out of a small civil rights law firm Dees founded with Joseph Levin. Over the years, it developed the legal strategy of suing white supremacist groups for monetary damages on behalf of victims of hate crimes.
But had Morris Dees been born 10 years earlier, had he been raised in the era before World War II, when America swelled with patriotism and suppressed its social conscience, the bigots would have one less person to threaten.
Had he attended high school before the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional, had he missed Autherine Lucy’s attempt to integrate the University of Alabama in 1956, had he started his legal career when minorities accepted separate-but-equal as their social doctrine, there probably would be no Southern Poverty Law Center.
That is the way Dees looks at his life, which began Dec. 16, 1936, on a tenant farm in Shorter, Ala., about 20 miles from Montgomery. His father, Morris Dees Sr., gave his son the ultimate Southern good-ol’-boy nickname _ “Bubba.”
In a lot of ways, Bubba Dees was indeed a good ol’ boy. He earned spending money by picking up pop bottles from the side of the road and killing 200 chickens a week.
He was also a door-to-door salesman, though his father didn’t approve of such aggressive, intrusive salesmanship.
But Bubba was his own man and vowed to stay that way.
“I didn’t have to justify anything to anybody my entire life,” he says.
It has been 41 years since he received his business degree from the University of Alabama, 39 years since he graduated from law school. In all that time, he never has worked for anyone _ a fact of which he seems proud.
He was still Bubba the good ol’ boy when he returned to Montgomery in 1960 and opened a law practice with Millard Fuller, his buddy from law school and later the founder of Habitat for Humanity.
In 1962, Dees and Fuller gave up law for a direct-mail business, Fuller and Dees Marketing Group. They sold cookbooks, tractor cushions and rat poison.
The company became a national enterprise, expanding to 17 divisions. Fuller and Dees Marketing advertised itself as the largest cookbook publisher in the nation.
Finally, Dees had the money that gave him the independence to express his views on race. He was no longer a good ol’ boy.
When four black children died in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Dees asked his church, the Pike Road Baptist Church in rural Montgomery County, for donations. The response was timid at best, even though the deaths of the four girls had created a national outrage.
In 1965, Dees drove out-of-state activists to Selma for the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Some state troopers recognized Dees, and soon word filtered through Montgomery: Morris Dees was a traitor.
What did he care? He and Fuller were on the verge of selling their company to Times Mirror Corp. for $6 million.
“I don’t know what makes you hungry,” says Dees, trying to explain what drives him. “You don’t want someone to tell you to move off your property. I figured I’d own my own stuff.”
DEA END MARSHALL