A hero talks of struggles still to come

Morris Dees tells about his storied fights for civil rights.

By STEPHANIE GARRY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 24, 2008

Morris Dees stood before his clients, a frightened group of Vietnamese refugees, at a church in Texas.

It was 1983, and the immigrants of Galveston Bay had outfished the envious Americans, who called on the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate the newcomers.

The Vietnamese community wanted to drop the lawsuit against the Klan for fear of retaliation.

So Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told them a story about one American who risked his life to fight for the rule of law above men.

They might not have known him, Dees said, but his name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The speech worked. Dees and his Vietnamese clients went on to win.

In a mild Alabama lilt, Dees, 71, told the story at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg on Wednesday. An audience of about 300 bookended his speech with standing ovations.

Dees and Joe Levin founded the law center as a small firm in Montgomery, Ala., the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Since 1971, the center has won multimillion-dollar cases against hate groups. It also supports programs that teach tolerance.

Dees, who grew up on a cotton farm, watched the civil rights movement from the sidelines as a young lawyer, but it left a lasting impression on him.

Now he sees King's vision in broader terms, as a promise of freedom and equality that America still struggles to live up to. People are still oppressed on the basis of economics or sexual orientation, he said.

But Dees believes that if King had survived to see 2008, he would be marching for Latino immigrants, the "sharecroppers of the 21st century."

Waves of xenophobia have passed before, targeting the Vietnamese, Jews or Irish-Catholics, he said.

But just as minds changed after the civil rights movement, Americans will one day see that undocumented migrants deserve equality, too.

"It's an issue that's going to come down on the side of justice and fairness in the end," Dees said, predicting the United States will have a Hispanic president within 100 years.

The speech, the fifth in the Debbie and Brent Sembler Florida Holocaust Museum Lecture Series at the College of Education, ended with a clutch of fans around Dees.

"I just wanted to touch you because you're a hero," one woman said, shaking Dees' hand.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com or 727892-2374.