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Week of January 14, 2013

Keynote speaker Dees witnessed inequalities in rural South

Morris Dees says that after picking cotton with poor blacks as a southern youth in the 1945s and 50s, he could not shun his friends when he became a lawyer.

“I could see my black friends as people and could not become part of a system that berated them,” he says. Dees, who co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 after winning a series of groundbreaking civil rights cases, will deliver the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Keynote Memorial Lecture at 10 a.m. Jan. 21 at Hill Auditorium.

He has received more than 20 honorary degrees and numerous awards and was named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal in 2006. In recent years, Dees has successfully taken the assets of white supremacist hate groups after he and his colleagues pioneered a legal theory holding the group leaders responsible for their members’ acts.

After growing up on a cotton farm, Dees attended law school and became a lawyer. “When I opened my law office in 1960 my clients were the poor whites and blacks I grew up with in rural Montgomery County, Alabama. To represent them adequately I had to go against the powers that be,” he says.

Dees

He says that even though Brown v. Board of Education had been decided and the buses in Montgomery were integrated, little had changed. Dees successfully sued to integrate the state police, juries and the all white YMCA.

Today, the reelection of President Barack Obama “leaves a lot of white middle class, especially red state older males, fearful. This could easily lead to violence and more rightwing groups,” he says.

Yet, Dees is hopeful for the future, saying there is little to fear. “The legacy of MLK should be that the march for civil and human rights continues,” he says.

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