Morris Dees, an attorney and businessman-turned-social justice activist is one of five recipients of the 2011 Gruber Justice Prize awarded by the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation. A founder and chief trial counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center, he will equally share the $500,000 prize with four other recipients, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The decade-old Gruber Prize honors people “who, often at great personal risk, fight for the Rule of Law.”
As a head of the SPLC, Dees, raised in a Baptist farming family in Alabama, combats discrimination against a wide range of groups in the United States. His middle name – Seligman – was the name of a Jewish merchant in Montgomery whom his grandfather admired.
Q: The SPLC combats discrimination against a wide variety of religious and ethnic groups. With a recent focus on bias against such groups as Muslims and gays, are Jews in America still a major target?
A: They certainly are. The bulk of white supremacists in this country see Jews as the primary enemy, the people behind blacks, other people of color, gay people and so on. It’s true of the 10,000 or so adherents of the Christian Identity theology, which calls Jews the literal, biological descendants of Satan. It’s true of most of the radical black supremacist groups. And, of course, this doesn’t even include the radical jihadist groups that, of course, hate Jews.
How is the rise of the Internet and social media making your job — or the work of the haters in society — easier?
Haters had great hopes for the Internet. They believed it would allow them to circumvent “politically correct” newspaper editors and television producers and get their message directly to the masses. It did allow that, but it hasn’t given them the millions of new members they were dreaming of … You can’t recruit that many people if your basic message is that the Jews need to be killed to make the world a better place.
That said, it has helped extremists to organize events, to find information on topics including weaponry and bomb-making, and, perhaps most importantly, to feel that they are part of an important movement and not just isolated, angry individuals at the far fringes of our society.
The Internet also allows us to much more easily keep track of who’s out there and what they’re doing, although you won’t generally find people making plans for criminal activity in open forums.
You often hear claims that organizations like the SPLC or the Anti-Defamation League exaggerate the threats of hate groups to legitimize your activities. How do you answer these critics?
It simply isn’t true. We engage in a very careful counting process, and our analysis follows that counting — it does not precede it. When we publish our lists of hate groups we have to have [evidence] that we’re not simply making this up. The SPLC was by far the first group to say that the militia movement was dying off, in the late 1990s – that’s what our counts were showing.
What is the most effective way to combat hate groups?
There is no one best way. Suing hate groups and their leaders on behalf of hate crime victims hits them where it hurts the most – in the pocketbook. The Center’s hate group tracking program, now in its 30th year, helps law enforcement and the media better understand the threat, know the major players and follow developing trends.
The Center’s Teaching Tolerance project, with its hands-on teaching tools and Internet presence, reaches over 80,000 schools, thousands of teachers and millions of students with lessons on democratic values and acceptance. This is aimed not only at youth members of hate groups, but also non-member students who harbor many of the same biases.
Do you, as the head of a prominent organization that defends the interests of people threatened by hate groups, ever find yourself the target of threats? Does it have a chilling affect on your work?
Over 30 men and women have been convicted for plots to harm Center officials or damage its property. Klansmen firebombed the Center’s headquarters in 1983. The Center provides 24/7 security for its top officials and its facility. We are realistic about the danger our work poses, but not willing to let threats hamper our efforts.
You, a Christian, bear a Jewish middle name; has this inter-religious identification influenced your life’s work?
Yes. My family has always been close to the Montgomery Jewish community. My grandfather — a small-town, backwoods cotton farmer — chose to name three of his sons for prominent Jewish businessmen. My father, the oldest son, also a small cotton farmer, apparently shared their positive feelings about minorities. My uncles, two of whom were Klansmen, did not. My father was my role model.