Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Civil rights attorney urges continued work for justice in MLK Symposium keynote

Morris Dees, who has successfully fought hate groups to protect civil rights in the United States, says the caustic political discourse of today would have been considered hate speech in the past.

Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 1971, presented the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium keynote address Monday to a crowd filling Hill Auditorium. He said an increasingly diverse America, where people of color are projected to outnumber whites by 2040, is unsettling to some.

  Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, presents the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium keynote address. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

"That frightens a lot of people. In this election we saw the vitriol come out," Dees said, adding that since Barack Obama became president, there has been a dramatic increase in hate groups and a 50 percent increase in militia groups.

Meanwhile, he said, the kind of language he heard coming from the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups in years past is now heard in public discourse.

"That language today you can hear in the mainstream media," he said. "We're going to find ways to make this country continue its promise of democracy and equal justice under the law."

In her opening remarks, President Mary Sue Coleman said the fight for justice isn't easy. She said this academic year marks the centennials of U-M students Raoul Wallenberg and Robert Hayden, who also was a Michigan faculty member. Hayden won Hopwood Awards and Wallenberg was named the top architecture student.

"But like anyone fighting for a better world, both men knew hostility and hatred," she said. Coleman recalled that in the racially charged 1960s, black writers and readers ostracized Hayden when he said he wanted to be known as an American poet rather than a black poet. Wallenberg as a Swedish diplomat in Hungary during World War II lived with the threat of assassination from the Nazi regime as he worked to save Jews from the death camps.

"Whether with words or actions, they found it within themselves to combat tyranny, racism and hatred, and all of our lives are better for it," Coleman said. Similarly, she said, Dees has received repeated death threats from the KKK and others, and King was beaten, jailed and felled by an assassin.

"An open, tolerant society does not occur without individuals and institutions that lead and push forward," she said.

Introducing the program, Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, recognized John Matlock, director of the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives (OAMI); Lumas Helaire, OAMI program director; the MLK Symposium Planning Committee, and OAMI staff for their work to organize the symposium. It is one of the most prominent in the nation recognizing King.

Monts said the symposium theme, "50 Years Later: (R)Evolution of the Dream," stems from King's most famous address — the "I Have a Dream" speech following the March on Washington in August 1963.

"The 'I Have a Dream' speech has been lauded as a rhetorical masterpiece and the greatest piece of oratory of the 20th century," Monts said. He added that the power of the speech resonated throughout the world, and put pressure on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to advance landmark civil rights legislation.

The SPLC, which Dees co-founded in 1971, has used the power of the courts to win significant monetary judgments against the KKK, Aryan Nation and other hate groups, decimating their power and influence. 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.

Dees said that growing up in the South, his interest in justice for all citizens was stirred by a teacher who emphasized the words in the Pledge of Allegiance, "liberty and justice for all."

He said Obama's election does signify a step forward, but the fight for economic justice and equal educational opportunity is far from over.

"If Dr. Martin Luther King was here today he'd say the march for justice continues and we all have a front row seat. There are so many places we can dip in and take part and make a difference," Dees said.

As an example of those who took up the fight, he recalled a group of Vietnamese immigrants who sought to pursue shrimp fishing on the Gulf Coast following the Vietnam War. They were vandalized and threatened by the KKK and others. Dees said the group wanted to give up a court fight they had started against the hate groups who came at them. He spoke to 75-100 of them at a small church in Galveston, Tex.

"I said, 'You know folks, America is a nation of laws, laws that protect minorities,'" Dees recalled. He went on to tell them of King's story, and how he also won judgments against oppressors, which included local and state governments, through court action.

He said the group agreed to continue its court fight and won. Later, Dees watched the sun burn through the morning fog on Galveston Bay, the light glinting off the badges of federal marshals assigned to the boats floating past during a blessing of the fleet ceremony.

"I could see enormous pride in these new immigrants. They had earned a place at America's table," Dees said. "The most powerful thing on earth is a simple concept of justice and fair treatment."

Among those on hand for Dees' speech Monday was Julie Matarneh, an Oglala Sioux from Ypsilanti. She said she appreciated Dees' work on behalf of people seeking justice. "You don't find that many people who do that," she said.