Morris Seligman Dees, Jr. (born December 16, 1936) is the co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and former direct mail marketeer for book publishing. Along with his law partner, Joseph J. Levin Jr., and civil rights leader Julian Bond, Dees founded the Center in 1971, the start of a legal career dedicated to suing "hate groups" and other controversial discrimination cases.
Dees' new legal firm began taking part in civil rights cases that frequently put him in the spotlight. He filed suit to stop construction of a white university in an Alabama city that already had a predominantly black state college. Then in 1969, he filed suit to integrate the all-white Montgomery YMCA.
Dees' most famous cases have involved landmark damage awards that have driven several prominent neo-Nazi groups into bankruptcy, effectively causing them to disband and re-organize under different names and different leaders. In 1981, Dees successfully sued the Ku Klux Klan and won a seven million dollar settlement. In a 1987 case against the United Klans of America, he won a $ 7 million judgment for the mother of Michael Donald, a black lynching victim in Alabama. This was topped a decade later, when in 1991 he won a judgment of $12 million against Tom Metzger's White Aryan Resistance. He was also instrumental in the rewarding of a $6.5 million judgment against Aryan Nations in 2001, which splintered that group as well.
Dees ran for the board of the Sierra Club as a protest candidate in 2004, qualifying by petition. His sole purpose in running was to use his ballot statement to encourage club members not to vote for three of the candidates, including Richard Lamm, because of their views on immigration. Dees received 7554 votes, coming in 16th out of 17 candidates in the election despite requesting no votes and carrying out no campaign.
Over 30 people have been jailed in connection with plots to kill Dees or blow up the center. Most recently a July 29, 2007, letter allegedly came from Hal Turner, a white supremacist talk show host, came after the SPLC filed a lawsuit against the Imperial Klans of America (IKA) in Meade County .
In 2006 the University of Alabama School of Law established the "Morris Dees Award" in "honor of University of Alabama alumnus and civil rights attorney Morris Dees.
Over the last several years Morris travels to universities presenting lectures on civil rights and justice.
Dees' tactics and legal actions against racial nationalist groups have made him a target of criticism from many of these organizations. He has received numerous death threats from these groups, and a number of their web sites make strong accusations against him and the Southern Poverty Law Center. On February 12 through 14 1994 Dan Morse in the Montgomery Advertiser published multiple articles alleging financial mismanagement, poor management practices, and misleading fundraising. The newspaper summarized its investigation as producing evidence of "a complex portrait of a wealthy civil rights organization essentially controlled by one man: Morris Dees." Morse referred to Dees as "a giant success story--a self-made millionaire by the age of 29, a chief fundraiser for four presidential candidates, a nationally recognized civil rights lawyer." Morse cited Dees former business partner from the 1960s who said Dees was a very driven person whereas others noted that "a continuous stream of positive media accounts had added to the Dees legend."
In response to the criticism, Joe Levin of the SPLC told the paper: "The Advertiser's lack of interest in the center's programs and its obsessive interest in the center's financial affairs and Mr. Dees' personal life makes it obvious to me that the Advertiser simply wants to smear the center and Mr. Dees.