Civil rights activist Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, will be deliver the keynote address at Mohawk Valley Community College’s Spring Commencement Friday, May 18 at 4 p.m., at the Utica Memorial Auditorium, 400 Oriskany St. W., Utica.
Known for innovative lawsuits that crippled some of America’s most notorious hate groups, Dees has received many accolades and awards, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association, the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice, and Trial Lawyer of the Year from Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. The University of Alabama Law School and the New York law firm Skadden, Arps jointly created an annual award in Dees’ name to honor a lawyer devoted to public service work.
Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 after a successful business and law career. While still a student at the University of Alabama, Dees started a direct mail sales company specializing in book publishing. He launched his law practice in 1960, winning a series of groundbreaking civil rights cases. Dees’ cases have involved landmark damage awards that have driven several prominent neo-Nazi groups into bankruptcy. In 1981, he successfully sued the Ku Klux Klan and won a $7 million judgment for the mother of Michael Donald, a black lynching victim in Alabama. In 1991, he won a judgment of $12 million against Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance, and in 2001 he helped secure a $6.5 million judgment against Aryan Nations.
Dees also is the author of three books: “A Season For Justice,” his autobiography; “Hate on Trial: The Case Against America’s Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi”; and “Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat.” In 1991, NBC aired a made-for-TV movie called “Line of Fire” about Dees and his landmark legal victories against the Ku Klux Klan.
While in Utica for Commencement, Dees will also be a participant in the plenary session of the Fourth Annual Poverty Symposium at the college, discussing ways that communities can overcome racism associated with chronic homelessness and poverty.