Activist addresses universal justice

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Activist addresses universal justice

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Morris Dees fights discrimination


Civil rights activist Morris Dees took a page from the Pledge of Allegiance in “With Justice For All,” a lecture presented to the Saint Louis University community by the Great Issues Committee on Nov. 15.

Moris Dees spoke to the SLU community on Nov. 15. Dees has been an active combatant of discrimination and racism. Curtis Wang / Multimedia Director

Dees addressed the changing face of the United States, chronicling the discrimination of minority groups throughout his 50-year legal career.

“I remember the words that stuck out to me, and I think they had a great deal to do with the course in life that I took,” Dees said. “Those words were, ‘One nation… with liberty and justice for all.’”

Dees discussed his Alabama rural roots and working on farms with African Americans in the fields, where he said that he began to know black people as “people.”

Dees said that America has been changing since he grew up, citing that when he graduated from high school in the 1950s, 17 percent of the population were people of color. According to the 2010 Census, that number has increased to 37 percent.

After graduating from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1960, Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights law firm, in 1971.

During his early legal career with the SPLC, Dees said he represented a group of Vietnamese fishermen who were harassed by the Texas Knights, a branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The Texas Knights burned crosses on the fishermen’s property in an attempt to intimidate them to leave the fishing business.

To stop the Texas Knights from harassing them, Dees told the fishermen to file an injunction against the Klan. The night before Dees planned to file the injunction, however, the fisherman requested that it be dropped.

Dees said he then reached out to the Vietnamese leaders of the community, persuading them to change their mind, so that an injunction could be filed.  Citing the Pledge of Allegiance, Dees made a plea to them to reconsider.

“I told them, ‘Do not drop the injunction,’” Dees said. “America is a nation of laws designed to have liberty and justice for all.”

His persuasion worked, and the fisherman went forward with the injunction, resulting in a victory for the Vietnamese community, as the Klan was ordered to end the harassment against them.

During the GIC lecture, Dees also discussed the increasing discrimination against Hispanics in America, and said that immigration from Hispanic countries accounts for the increasing diversification of the American population.

Dees said that there has recently been an increase in “hateful dialogue” against Hispanics from media commentators and political figures.

According to Dees, this discrimination is not a new issue. He compared the discrimination and hateful rhetoric against Hispanics to discrimination against other ethnic and racial minority groups of the past, including the Irish in the 1840s and 1850s, eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century and the Chinese in the 1880s.

Dees  said that America could be moving toward a successful future, but that it needs to build bridges between racial and ethnic divides, to gain an acceptance of others.

“America is great because of our diversity. This is something that we must recognize and continue to build on the next 10 to 20 years,” Dees said. “I want young people to not be frightened by diversity because this has been the key to America’s success.”

After the speech, Dees answered questions from the audience on various social issues. Several students said Dees’ message was a positive one.

“The speech meant a lot to me,” junior Matt Satcher said. “We got to hear about the best and worst of humanity by a man with a lot of experience, and he showed that the good in the world will win out in the end.”