chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

GPSolo eReport

GPSolo eReport Article Archives

Defining Moments: Morris Dees Jr.

Melanie Bragg


  • Co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Set a good example of fair treatment of others.
  • Whether it’s the clients in his civil rights cases or the Klan members who burned down his business—everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with respect.
Defining Moments: Morris Dees Jr.
Chris Jongkind via Getty Images

Jump to:

Morris Dees Jr., co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and recipient of the American Bar Association Medal, couldn’t tell me exactly what “bent the twig this way or that” when it came to defining moments in his life, but he certainly had some impactful stories to share. He grew up in Alabama, where his parents were tenant farmers. They purchased a tract of land when he was a teenager; his father had a small store, and they continued to farm cotton on land they rented. He grew up surrounded by predominantly African American workers in the field, and his father worked right alongside of them. “A few of my father’s peers never put their hands on a plow or ever picked cotton. My dad was out there working along with the cotton pickers who were working in our fields.” Morris’s dad’s proclivity for hard work and racial inclusion was a point of contention for other family members. Morris’s uncle ran a country store in the same town, and according to Morris, “He was a real racist. He had a Ku Klux Klan robe hanging in his store, and he was just a big, bigoted racist. I’m not sure who he hated the most, my dad or the Blacks in my community, because my father treated Blacks fairly.”

But that didn’t stop Morris’s father: “My dad was just fair.” The workers would come in their front door, sit at their table, and they would all share a meal together—almost unheard of for the time and place. Morris picked up his father’s work ethic and started working in the fields as well. He saw his father drink from the same dipper as the African American workers, not to make a point, but just as a fact of life. Morris remembers the first time his father gave him “the watch,” appointing him boss for the day.

It must have been 110 degrees out there, and Daddy had gone somewhere and came back to the field in his pickup truck about 11:30. He said he thought it was time we ought to knock it off and let everybody get in the shade and eat their lunch. People carried their lunch in a bucket—collard greens, cornbread, or whatever. I told him that we needed to work until 12:00, and Daddy said it was too hot for people to be out. He said that they have feelings just like I did. He was talking about the Blacks in the field. It was just little, tiny things that he showed me, but he did not say, “I’m giving you a lecture.” He just set good examples to me of how to model fair treatment of others.

Morris continued to share his father’s charitable and entrepreneurial spirit into his high school days. Starting in tenth grade, he was bussed into the city for school. Around the same time, he purchased an old panel truck. He started collecting the leftovers from the high school cafeteria and driving them home to feed his pigs with it. “I fed about 150 pigs all during school. With free food it was hard to lose, right?” Morris also had chickens, cattle, and about $10,000 in the bank when he hit 12th grade. He was doing so well that it seemed almost absurd to stop farming and continue his education. He got married, settled down, and prepared to continue farming for the rest of his days. However, “back then, there was no land to rent.” No land meant no farming. Morris was forced to face his backup plan, and he enrolled at the University of Alabama.

Starting back at school wasn’t easy for Morris. His primary feeling was homesickness. He recalled his birthday when his mother sent him a fruitcake to celebrate. One day, he and his wife, also a student, were sitting there staring at the sad fruitcake from a can when Morris started thinking, “There are 12,000 students at this university, and maybe I could get the names and addresses of all their mamas and daddies and write them a letter and sell them a birthday cake.” That—Morris wanting a birthday cake from home—was his true ah-ha moment. He went to a baker, who laughed him off. He went to the dean of the university and asked for a list of parents’ addresses. The dean wouldn’t just hand that information out to anybody. Morris put the cake idea on standby but didn’t forget it completely. He started selling ads for desk blotters in the student government’s school directory, which went from “a mediocre little thing into quite an enterprise.” Then, he asked the student government, “Where do I get the names and addresses of the students?” They pointed him to the news bureau. “I went to get the cards, and lo and behold, they had the mamas’ and daddies’ names, birthdays, everything.” That began his first direct-mail campaign, and he ran the very successful birthday cake service for four years with his partner, Millard Fuller.

By the time Morris and Millard graduated, they had purchased four apartment buildings that they rented to 40 students. “One thing that my daddy taught me was this: Never work for anybody else. I never have and never will. I encourage most people not to.” He and Millard traveled together to Montgomery, where they entered law school and rented law office space where they worked together until 1965, when Morris bought Fuller out. “He went on to set up Habitat for Humanity.”

Around the same time, the civil rights movement was picking up speed. “I began to really change my attitudes about civil rights issues. During the march in Selma and Montgomery, we carried some people to Selma to march. You weren’t supposed to do that. The state troopers got my tag number and told my mama. White folks did not assist Black people in anything in the 1960s. You became a real pariah in the community. Mother didn’t care.” A few years later, Morris filed a civil rights suit against the YMCA that “really upset the apple cart in the community.” He won, and the YMCA was forced to integrate. A few years later, he filed a similar suit against the Alabama State Troopers. “They had to hire one Black for every one white until the Troopers were integrated fully. Now they have a Black commander for the Troopers. These things didn’t just happen one thing after another; it was one thing led to another.”

The major cases are the ones that got publicity, that stayed in the news and shaped Morris into the civil rights lawyer he is today. But some of the successes he carries the most pride in are the smaller cases. In the mid-1960s, an African American client asked for help with a traffic ticket. He had been caught without a taillight. He lived in Morris’s farming community. The client just wanted him to take it to the judge and try to get a low fine. Morris remembers,

I went to the justice of the peace, who I knew out there, and I said, “Here’s a ticket. How much is it?” He said, “I just charged him a $2 fine. But I’ve got to give him court costs.” I asked, “What is that?” He said, “I have to get $10 court costs.” I said, “Wait a minute. If the excuse was that the taillight was not working, it was working the same day, it just quit working because something happened to the wiring. He’s not really guilty.” Justice of the Peace said, “But if I find him not guilty, I don’t get any court costs.” I went and filed a federal lawsuit in federal court saying that the justice of the peace system in Alabama was unconstitutional because the judge had an incentive to find somebody guilty because he could not get his court costs unless somebody is found guilty. Well, that lawsuit wiped out the justice of the peace system for the whole state of Alabama.

For all of the powerful work Morris was producing, he certainly wasn’t winning any popularity contests. “I was highly unpopular. The Klan broke into my building and tacked KKK all over the walls and flooded the computer room in my company.” He started working with a young lawyer, Joe Levin, and started a full-on civil rights practice. He used his direct-mail knowledge, thinking they would write people around the country to raise money and ask for help with civil rights cases in the South. This was the beginning of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I used what I learned selling birthday cakes in the mail, selling cookbooks and other fundraising stuff, and used those same skills to set up a major nonprofit development operation for the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

Creativity has always been a key aspect of Morris’s success, and he has won many accolades and honors, including the American Bar Association Medal. “I do think that whether it’s a lawsuit that I am trying or a business deal or whatever, I try to be creative and not accept no for an answer.” He still remembers the early lessons his father instilled in him, and he continues to treat everyone around him with fairness. Whether it’s the clients in his civil rights cases or the Klan members who burned down his business—everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with respect. As for Morris’s future? “I don’t know. You know farmers don’t retire; they just drop behind the plow. Lawyers keep working.”

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul

Defining Moments: Insights Into the Lawyer’s Soul
By Melanie Bragg
ISBN: 9781641054195
Product Code: 1620777
2019, 241 pages, paperback and e-book
$29.95; member price $23.95