The University Record, January 21, 2002

Dees reflects, issues warning on racial situation

By Judy Steeh
News and Information Services

Morris Dees (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
“There is a great battle going on in America today,” said Morris Dees delivering the opening address for the 2002 Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. symposium. “Exactly whose America is this? Whose version of America is going to prevail? There is a great division in this country, and it won’t be healed by the events of Sept. 11. I think we’ll be back to business as usual much sooner than we’d like,” said Dees, a veteran of the civil rights movement and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) during his address in the Michigan Union Ballroom Jan. 14.

Now the chief trial counsel for the SPLC, Dees had a mixed message for his audience. On one hand, he said, hate crimes are rising across America. “I see a dark cloud, an ill wind, blowing across this country. The FBI reported 10,000 hate crimes in 2001, but many crimes of that sort are not reported. My guess is that the number is more like 40,000.”

The SPLC has been monitoring hate groups operating in the United States since 1981. “Last year we counted 600—that’s an increase of about 5 percent,” Dees noted.

On a brighter note, Dees said that SPLC’s recent surveys have shown that all over the country, people have been demonstrating an increasing intolerance for intolerance. “They’re saying, ‘we’re better than this,’ and actively reaching out to victims of hate and intolerance. They’re starting to build bridges over the great divides of race, gender, social class that run through our country,” he said.

“When those bridges are finally built, they’ll be built out of friendship and love. I’m not talking about the friendship and love we feel for members of our family or people just like us, but the kind of friendship and love that Martin Luther King preached about during his life—an acceptance, an understanding, an appreciation for people who are not like us. That is what we must strive for,” he said.

Remembering King, Dees said, “He was remarkable for his steadfastness and his extraordinary courage in confronting hate mongers. He had to overcome contemporaries with little vision, politicians with no backbone, and in the end, a terrorist with no conscience.

“A lot has happened since he left us; we’ve taken three steps forward and two steps back. But if King were here today he’d still have that dream. I think it might have expanded to take in barrios, reservations, and the seats of economic, political, and judicial power in this country, but the dream itself would still be intact,” he added.

Dees closed with a warning. “People think America will go on forever. But this country is constantly changing. Unless we come up with a way to be fair to everyone, there’s no guarantee America will last. Still, I’m optimistic. There are so many people like you in this audience who will participate in the effort to ensure an America where justice truly ‘rolls down like the waters.’”