2016 Keynote Speaker Morris Dees

Morris Dees

Morris Dees
Legendary Civil Rights Activist

Morris Dees was born in 1936 at Shorter, Alabama, the son of cotton farmers.  As a young boy he worked the fields with blacks, witnessing first-hand social and economic deprivation and Jim Crow treatment at its worse.

While at the University of Alabama Law School, he met Millard Fuller.  The two formed a highly successful publishing company during their time in law school.  After graduation, they moved the business to Montgomery, Alabama.  Fuller left the company in 1965 and later founded Habitat for Humanity.  Mr. Dees continued the business and also began taking controversial civil rights cases.

Mr. Dees sold his publishing company to a major national firm in 1970 and formed the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with Julian Bond and Joseph Levin.  Early Center cases included integrating the Alabama State Troopers and desegregating the Montgomery YMCA.  The Center, funded by donations from over 300,000 citizens across the nation, quickly grew into one of America’s most successful and innovative public interest law firms.

In 1980, the Center founded the Intelligence Project in response to resurgence in organized racist activity.  The project monitors hate groups and develops legal strategies for protecting citizens from violence-prone groups.  A made-for-television movie about Mr. Dees aired on NBC.  Line of Fire describes his successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan.  It included the $7 million precedent-setting judgment against the United Klans of America on behalf of the mother of Michael Donald, a young black man lynched by the Klan in Mobile, Alabama.  Wayne Rogers portrayed him in the feature film, Ghosts of Mississippi, about the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers.

Other victories against hate groups include a $6 million judgment that bankrupted the Aryan Nations, a $12.5 million jury verdict against the California-based White Aryan Resistance for the death of a black student and a $26 million verdict against the Carolina Klan for burning black churches.

Klansmen burned the Center offices in1983.  The arsonists were convicted but not before their leader plotted to kill Mr. Dees.  More than thirty men have since been imprisoned for plots to harm him or destroy Center property.  This threat requires a high degree of security during public appearances.

To promote acceptance and tolerance, the Center founded Teaching Tolerance in 1990.  Over 80,000 schools use the project’s free videos and teaching materials and over 400,000 teachers receive the award winning Teaching Tolerance magazine.  The Center has won two Oscars for its tolerance education films and received five Oscar nominations.  Mr. Dees believes that it is important to teach tolerance in the classroom as well as fight hate in the courtroom. 

Mr. Dees has received numerous awards in conjunction with his work.  The U.S. Jaycees chose him as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America for his early business success.  Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named him Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987.  In 2009, he was inducted into the Trial Lawyers’ Hall of Fame by the American Trial Lawyers’ Association.  The American Bar Association honored him this year (2012) with the ABA Medal, the ABA's highest honor.

Mr. Dees is the author of three books, A Lawyers Journey, his autobiography, Hate on Trial and Gathering Storm, America’s Militia Threat.  He remains actively engaged litigation.  He and his wife live in Montgomery, Alabama.

List of Previous Speakers

2016 Morris Dees, Civil Rights activist
2015 Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist
2014 Dick Gregory, Civil Rights activist and comedian
2013 Myrlie Evers-Williams, Civil Rights activist, first female chairperson of the NAACP
2012 Andrew Young, US Ambassador, Congressman, Mayor of Atlanta and Co-Founding Principal and Chairman of Goodworks International
2011 Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, political commentator and educator
2010 Kweisi Mfume, political and business leader
2009 Dr. Nikki Giovanni, poet, author, essayist and professor
2008 Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr., Senior Minister Emeritus, The Riverside Church; President and Founder, Healing of the Nations Foundation
2007 Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, Co-Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference
2006 Julian Bond, Chairman, NAACP
2005 Juan Williams, Author, Columnist, NPR Host
2004 Dr. Scott Ellsworth, Author, "Death in a Promised Land..."
2003 *Rep. Opio Toure, Oklahoma State Representative
2002 Hon. Fred R. Harris, Former US Senator, Member of "The Group"
2001 Dr. G. Calvin McCutchen, Sr., Pastor, Mt. Zion Baptist Church
2000 W.A. Drew Edmondson, Attorney General of the State of Oklahoma
1999 Ms. Diane Nash, Student Leader of the Non-violent Civil Rights Movement of te 1960s
1998 Rev. Dr. James Lawson, Pastor, Holman United Methodist Church, Los Angeles, California
1997 Mr. Morris Dees, Co-Founder, Southern Law Poverty Center, Montgomery, Alabama
1996 *Rev. Wade Watts, Pastor, Jerusalem Baptist Church, Oklahoma City
1995 *Dr. Ernest Holloway, President, Langston University
1994 *Ms. Clara Luper, Oklahoma Civil Rights Leader, Oklahoma City
1993 Dr. Cynthia Hale, Pastor, Atlanta, Georgia
1992 *Dr. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, University of Oklahoma Board of Regents
1991 *The Honorable Hannah Atkins, Oklahoma Secretary of State, 1987-1991
1990 Brig. Gen. Frank L. Miller, Jr., Commander, III Corps Artillery, Fort Sill
1989 Dr. George Henderson, Department of Human Relations, University of Oklahoma
1988 *Rev. JL Davenport, Pastor, St. John's Baptist Church
1987 Dr. Melvin Todd, Vice President, Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education
1986 Rev. Gregory Wilson Jones, Pastor, Frederick, OK
1985 Dr. Valree Wynn, Emeritus Cameron Faculty

*Denotes deceased