Morris Dees founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 and the Justice Center of America in 2019 following a successful business and law career. Early in his career he started a direct mail sales company specializing in book publishing while still a student at the University of Alabama, where he also obtained a law degree.
After launching a law practice in Montgomery in 1960, he won a series of groundbreaking civil rights cases that helped integrate government and public institutions. He also served as finance director for former President Jimmy Carter's campaign in 1976 and for Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972.
Today, Morris has turned his focus to fighting the NRA and unjust gun regulations. The man who beat the KK now takes on the NRA.
A FULL TROPHY CABINET
Known for his innovative lawsuits that crippled some of America's most notorious white supremacist hate groups, he has received more than 20 honorary degrees and numerous awards.
Those include: Trial Lawyer of the Year from Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association and The Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice.
Morris also received the National Trial Lawyers Lifetime Achievement Award, an award only received by 4 trial lawyers in U.S. History.
Additionally, Morris has been inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame by Trial Lawyer Magazine. The highest award bestowed on an American trial lawyer.
MORRIS: A LIVING LEGEND
He was named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal in 2006. In addition, the University of Alabama Law School and New York law firm Skadden, Arps jointly created the annual Morris Dees Justice Award to honor a lawyer devoted to public service work.
Dees has written three books: A Season For Justice, his autobiography; Hate On Trial: The Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi; and Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat. In 1991, NBC aired a made-for-TV movie called, "Line of Fire" about Dees and his landmark legal victories against the Ku Klux Klan.
MORRIS' NEW FIGHT
The man who has fought hate and injustice. The man who took on and beat the Ku Klux Klan now sets his focus on America's next greatest threat: Domestic Terrorism. See what Morris is doing to fight for safer gun laws and put an end to mass shootings.
Honoring the life, legacy and continued dedication to the fight of hate and injustice - the Justice Center of America is renaming their headquarters to the "Morris Dees Justice Center."
The renaming of the building is to symbolize the reaffirmation of the fight for human rights and our new fight, responsible gun ownership.
HISTORY IN DATES
Dees was one of the principal architects of an innovative strategy that entailed using litigation through civil lawsuits in order to secure a court judgment for monetary damages against an organization for a wrongful act. The courts seized organization assets (money, land, buildings, other property) in order to gain payment of the judgment.
A federal court rules that the Montgomery, Ala., YMCA must end its policy of racial discrimination. Morris Dees filed the case, Smith v. YMCA, after two black children were turned away from a YMCA summer camp.
In Selmont Improvement District et. al. v. Dallas County Commission et. al., a 20-year injustice was rectified when a federal court ordered the paving of 10 miles of streets in an unincorporated black neighborhood near Selma in Dallas County, Ala. The new streets had to be equal in quality to those installed free in adjacent white neighborhoods in 1954.
A federal court accepts the a reapportionment plan for the Alabama Legislature. It is later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The plan followed the Nixon v. Brewer lawsuit that claimed blacks were underrepresented. Seventeen black lawmakers are elected to the Alabama Legislature in 1974, the first election after the reapportionment plan is adopted.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Morris Dees and his clients in the first successful sex discrimination case against the federal government, Frontiero v. Richardson. It rules the Department of Defense cannot grant certain benefits to dependents of servicemen but not to those of servicewomen.
The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirms a ruling banning the use of public recreational facilities by segregated private schools in Gilmore v. City of Montgomery.
Clients – Jesse Walston, Vernon Brown and Bobby Hines – are freed in August 1974 following two years in a North Carolina prison after being wrongfully charged with raping a white woman. The three black men, known as the Tarboro Three, faced death sentences.
Client Joanne Little, a black inmate accused of murdering a white jail guard in North Carolina, is acquitted of murder. The guard was found dead in her cell without his pants. Little said he had tried to rape her.
A federal court rules Alabama prisons are “wholly unfit for human habitation” in Pugh v. Locke. Attorneys work for more than a decade to force the state to bring the prisons up to constitutional standards.
Morris worked with a legal team to develop trial strategies for capital cases and share them with attorneys across the U.S. at seminars.
The U.S. Supreme Court opens the door for women to be hired for law enforcement jobs traditionally held by men Dothard v. Rawlinson.
A lawsuit challenging sterilization abuse funded by the federal government is remanded to U.S. District Court for dismissal after federal officials withdraw the regulations challenged in the case, Relf v. Weinberger.
The U.S. Supreme Court vacates the convictions of 11 death row inmates in Alabama after affirming the claim in Beck v. Alabama that the state’s death penalty statute is unconstitutional.
Morris worked with other activists to create Klanwatch to monitor Ku Klux Klan activity across the country. In 1998 it expands its mission and begins monitoring other hate groups.
A Klan terror campaign against Vietnamese fishermen in Texas ends and Klan paramilitary training bases are shut down as part of the lawsuit, Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association v. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Morris win helps the release of Johnny Ross, who became the nation’s youngest death row inmate at age 16 after being wrongly convicted of the rape of a white woman in Louisiana in 1975.
A financial settlement was won on behalf of cotton mill workers who contracted brown lung disease, or byssinosis, by inhaling tiny dust particles on a daily basis. Following the case, Wilkins v. Lanier, federal regulations were passed to control the dust exposure and require textile companies to provide regular medical screenings.
Melted clock from Morris office 1983 –Klansmen burn the offices of Morris on July 28, 1983. More than a year after the fire, three men are arrested: Tommy Downs and Charles Bailey, members of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and Joe Garner, a national officer of the group. They are charged with arson and possession of explosives. All three plead guilty and are sentenced to prison.
A paramilitary unit of the Klan is enjoined from operating as a result of a lawsuit brought on behalf of Alabama citizens against Klan leader Bill Wilkinson and the Invisible Empire Klan.
Kentucky’s tax system, which had virtually exempted un-mined coal from taxation, is reformed after lawsuit files Nowak v. Foster, providing a boost for public schools.
A paramilitary Klan group in North Carolina is ordered to stop training and operating. Person v. Carolina Knights of the KKK, was filed after the group began terrorizing residents.
Morris won a historic $7 million verdict against the United Klans of America for the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Ala. It marks the end of the notorious United Klans, which was responsible for the deadly bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in the 1960s.
Alabama state troopers must integrate after the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of clients in lawsuit, Paradise v. Allen.
An appeal wins release of Roy Patterson from prison in Georgia, 13 years after he was wrongfully convicted of murdering a police officer. Patterson acted in self-defense when a state trooper and a policeman attacked him and his wife and child.
A federal jury assesses nearly $1 million in damages against two Klan groups and 11 followers responsible for an attack on peaceful marchers in Forsyth County, Ga. Morris sued on behalf of the marchers in McKinney v. Southern White Knights. The Invisible Empire was eventually forced to pay damages and disband.
The Civil Rights Memorial, created by Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is dedicated in Montgomery. In 2005, the Civil Rights Memorial Center, an interactive visitor’s center, opens in the Morris' former office
A settlement was won against members of the Invisible Empire Klan who attacked peaceful civil rights marchers with bats, ax handles and guns in Decatur, Ala., in 1979. The Klansmen must attend a race relations course taught by the leaders of the group they attacked.
Morris wins a $12.5 million judgment against Tom and John Metzger and their hate group, White Aryan Resistance, for their role in the murder of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw by racist skinheads in Portland, Ore.
The Confederate battle flag is removed from atop the Alabama Capitol after the case of Holmes v. Hunt. The flag had flown atop the building since Gov. George Wallace raised it in 1963 as a symbol of defiance to integration efforts.
Investigating white supremacist activity within the anti-government militia movement. Six months before the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, Morris Dees writes a letter warning U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno of the danger posed by militias.
$1 million judgment was won against the Church of the Creator in the 1991 slaying of a black sailor, Harold Mansfield, by one of the group’s reverends.
Indigent dialysis patients in Alabama receive state-funded transportation to medical care following a lawsuit brought on behalf of these patients who sometimes went without food to afford transportation. Although the case, Harris v. James, was ultimately overturned on appeal, Alabama Medicaid recipients continue to receive transportation.
Alabama prisons are forced to abandon the use of brutal prisoner chain gangs following a lawsuit, Austin v. James.
In a lawsuit handled by Morris Dees, a South Carolina jury awards the largest judgment ever against a hate group in Macedonia v. Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The Christian Knights, its state leader and four other Klansmen are ordered to pay $37.8 million (later reduced to $21.5 million) for conspiring to burn Macedonia Baptist Church, an African-American church
A homeless African-American teenager is enrolled in an Alabama high school after being denied admission to a school because of her homeless status and steered away from another because of her race. The lawsuit, Penny Doe v. Richardson, led to a state policy that complied with federal law and ensured that local schools live up to their responsibility to educate homeless children.
Klansman Wallace Weicherding and New Order leader Dennis McGiffen are sent to prison for conspiracy in connection with a plot to kill Morris Dees by bombing his office.
Morris Dees wins a $6.3 million verdict against the Aryan Nations and its leader, Richard Butler. Butler must give up the 20-acre compound that is home to the nation’s most violent white supremacists. Morris filed suit after Aryan Nations members terrorized a mother and son.
Alabama prisoners are allowed to receive gift subscriptions to publications following the lawsuit, Prison Legal News, et al. v. Haley. Before the lawsuit, prisoners could not accept gift subscriptions and were forced to buy subscriptions from their prison trust accounts. The lawsuit also resulted in publishers receiving notification when their publications are rejected by the Alabama Department of Corrections.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama prisons cannot handcuff prisoners to metal posts known as hitching posts. The ruling in Hope v. Pelzer came after Morris Dees served as co-counsel for a prisoner handcuffed to a hitching post outdoors for seven hours.
Winning a lawsuit against Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to enforce the constitutional separation of church and state, a legal team forces the removal of a three-ton Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building.
Morris Dees worked with others to create the Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) to address the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers. It files a number of lawsuits on behalf of immigrant workers, recovering nearly $2 million in wages within its first five years. It also brings reforms to the forestry industry, a major employer of immigrant labor.
A settlement in the case of suit Baker v. Campbell means that chronically sick state inmates, who had been routinely denied medical care, will get the care they need.
A $1.5 million verdict was won in the Ranch Rescue case. A 70-acre paramilitary compound is awarded to immigrants who were detained and assaulted by a vigilante “border patrol.”
Two documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement are honored. Mighty Times: The Children’s March, wins an Academy Award for best short documentary. Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks, wins a daytime Emmy Award.
The Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP) is launched to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. Mississippi ultimately passes legislation that radically overhauls the state’s juvenile justice system.
Morris worked with others to expose growing evidence that large numbers of potentially dangerous racial extremists are infiltrating the armed forces and urges the Pentagon to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for extremism. Forty members of Congress join the call for action.
A Texas jury awards $9 million to Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled black man who was left with brain damage after he was knocked unconscious and dumped along a road by four white men in 2003. Suit was filed after the men received jail sentences of 30 to 60 days.
The U.S. Justice Department in reopened civil rights era cold cases receiving with information about the deaths of dozens of people who may have been victims of racially motivated killings during the 1950s and 1960s.
The state of Mississippi closes the notorious Columbia Training School, a prison for girls, seven months after the state was sued to stop the physical and sexual abuse of teenage girls confined there. The suit exposes brutal conditions, including the shackling of girls for weeks at a time. The state vows to decrease the incarceration of juveniles and provide quality services for at-risk youth.
A $2.5 million verdict was won against the Imperial Klans of America for its role in the brutal beating of a teenager at a county fair in rural Kentucky. The verdict is expected to cripple the IKA, once one of the nation’s largest Klan groups.
A plea agreement is reached with five of the black youths known as the “Jena Six.” The young men, initially charged with attempted murder for a high school fight involving a white student in Jena, La., avoid jail time after pleading no contest to misdemeanor simple battery charges.
The Palm Beach County, Fla., school system settles a complaint on behalf of students with disabilities who were not provided the counseling, social work and psychological services required by federal law. The agreement to protect these students is one of the largest settlements involving federal education law for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
National attention was bought to the plight of immigrants with Under Siege, a report detailing widespread discrimination against low-income Latinos in the South.
A settlement was reached recovering $175,000 on behalf of 39 migrant workers who worked for months without pay as they repaired apartments in post-Katrina New Orleans
A settlement was reached to correct unconstitutional conditions at the Harrison County (Miss.) Juvenile Detention Center, where children were brutalized by staffers, held in filthy cells for 23 hours a day and provided no recreational or educational services.
An agreement is reached in Hinds County, Miss., where children at the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Detention Center suffered abuse and neglect. Children are no longer locked down for 23 hours a day or banned from having books in their cells.
The Pentagon tightens its policy banning extremist activity in the military following a series of investigative reports that uncovered extremist activity among active-duty personnel.
Arkansas-based Superior Forestry Service Inc. agrees to pay $2.75 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of guestworkers who were systematically cheated out of their wages. The settlement was one of the largest of its kind.
A settlement agreement is reached in a federal lawsuit filed against the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi. The settlement promises dramatic reforms at the facility. The lawsuit described children locked in cells for 23 hours a day and subjected to the use of pepper spray as punishment.
The town of Homer, La., settles a lawsuit filed on behalf of the widow of an elderly black man shot to death by a white police officer in 2009.
A $250,000 settlement was won for Mexican immigrants who were jailed and turned over to immigration authorities after demanding pay withheld by their employer at a Tennessee cheese factory. The case established an important legal precedent for worker rights.
A North Carolina company agrees to pay $230,000 to settle a lawsuit on behalf of a Latina factory worker who was brutally assaulted by a plant manager after she had earlier reported his sexual harassment to company officials.
New Orleans schools agree to reform security policies to protect students from handcuffing and shackling after the suit on behalf of a first-grader who was handcuffed by an armed security officer.
A settlement agreement is reached in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a Latino man who suffered broken bones in his face when he was arrested and beaten by police officers during a 2010 traffic stop in Smyrna, Ga.
The public school district in Durham, N.C., agrees to end discriminatory practices that created a hostile environment for Latino students, following a federal civil rights complaint.
A settlement agreement is reached to pay $1.5 million to more than 1,500 foreign guestworkers owed back wages by an Arkansas agricultural company. The agreement with Candy Brand is one of the largest settlement agreements ever reached against a single employer of foreign guestworkers.
A settlement agreement is reached to improve conditions and stop abuses at Mississippi’s Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center. The facility, located in Hattiesburg, agrees to comply with federal law requiring that children at the center be allowed access to lawyers and civil rights advocates.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district, Minnesota’s largest, agrees to adopt a wide-ranging plan to protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment.
A settlement with Jackson (Mississippi) Public Schools to reform discipline policies and end the practice of handcuffing students to railings and poles for hours at a time as punishment for minor rule violations.
A federal court rules that colleges and universities in Florida can no longer charge out-of-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants who are residents of the state.
A federal court orders a Georgia forestry company to pay $11.8 million to 4,000 foreign guest workers who were systematically cheated out of their wages.
A jury orders a labor recruiting firm and its owner to pay $4.5 million to 350 Filipino teachers lured to teach in Louisiana public schools and forced into exploitive contracts.
An reaches agreement was reached with Mobile (Alabama) County Public Schools to reduce suspensions for minor misbehaviorand provide alternative forms of discipline.
The Jefferson Parish (Louisiana) Head Start program agrees to provide equal access to impoverished Latino preschoolers who were previously denied enrollment.
Litigation over Georgia’s anti-immigrant law comes to an end after several key provisions are blocked by a coalition of attorneys.
In an historic ruling, a federal court declares unconstitutional sections of a statute that prevented the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from granting benefits to a disabled veteran and her same-sex spouse.
Alabama’s vicious anti-immigrant law is gutted after civil rights groups reach an agreement with the state to permanently block key provisions.
Major provisions of South Carolina’s anti-immigrant law are permanently blocked as part of a settlement agreement with a coalition of civil rights groups.
White Homicide Worldwide was released, a report showing that nearly 100 people were murdered by active users of the leading white supremacist web forum, Stormfront, over the previous five years.
A settlement with the city of Montgomery, Alabama, stops the jailing of indigent people who can’t pay traffic fines – closing the city’s modern-day version of debtors’ prison.
A $14 million jury verdict for Indian guest workers who were defrauded in a labor-trafficking scheme engineered by a Gulf Coast marine services company and its agents. The verdict ultimately becomes part of a $20 million settlement on behalf of 200 workers.
In a landmark victory, a jury finds that a New Jersey provider of “conversion therapy” violated the state’s consumer fraud lawby offering services it claimed could turn gay people straight.
The Department of Justice, sparked by an investigation, reaches a settlement to stop the school system in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, from needlessly arresting children for minor school violations.
International attention was brought to the plight of transgender prisoners in a case brought on behalf of Ashley Diamond; the litigation leads to reforms to Georgia’s prison policies.