Morris Dees, founder and director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), spoke on combating prejudice and hate in America to a packed Sage Chapel last night. He was the opening speaker for the “Religion and Human Rights: Ideology, the Rhetoric of Hate and the Language of Reconciliation” conference.
Dees is a distinguished lawyer who has fought for decades against white supremacy, racism and hate. He founded the SPLC in 1971 in Montgomery, Ala. to combat hate, intolerance and discrimination through litigation and education.
Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin introduced this soft spoken Southerner with a glowing recommendation.
“What an extraordinary human being; what an extraordinary life,” she said.
Dees began his lecture talking about his elementary school teacher, Miss Johnson. “She would take our class out every day to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I remember how proud I felt then to be an American,” he said.
His love for America at its best and worst was an overriding theme of his speech.
“Your conference could not have been more timely. As we move into this next century … we find many things in this country we can be proud of. But, at the same time, there is room for improvement … we find an ill wind blowing across this country,” he said.
Dees discussed the divisions in America along lines of race, class, economic status, sexual orientation and geographic location. “These divides cause so much fear and anger and frustration that is causing people to be tearing at each others’ throats,” he said.
As an example, Dees told the audience about SPLC’s multi-million dollar case against Tom Metzger, the leader of the White Aryan Resistance, a white supremacist group. A sub-group of the Resistance in Portland, Ore. beat and killed an Ethiopian immigrant, and Metzger was held responsible.
“The America that Tom Metzger believes in never existed. America is great because of its diversity, not despite it,” Dees said.
Dees countered his stories of hate with some encouraging words.
“We began to look around to see what America is doing, and we found good news,” he said. “In many of the communities where these hate crimes have occurred people are reaching out to the victims and saying ‘we understand your pain.’ They’re saying ‘you’re not alone, we’re here to help you, to make you part of this community.'”
In his conclusion, Dees shared plans for the “National Campaign for Tolerance,” which he is cosponsoring with Rosa Parks. They aim to enlist five million American citizens to commit to a declaration of tolerance on the 50th anniversary of Parks’ famous civil rights stand.
Kate Willeinson ’02 took away a positive message from the lecture. “I think that seeing other people dedicate their life to social justice shows me that it can be done and makes me want to make it more a part of my life,” she said.
Prompted by a question from the audience Dees discussed the danger that he has encountered working against hate groups. “I didn’t get into this work to get shot at or to have our building burned; it just came with the territory.” Early on in the work of the SPLC, a group of skinheads Dees was prosecuting burned down his office building.
“It does affect your personal life,” he said. “Having security agents walking around our home, my wife and I can’t do things on the pool table that we used to.”
Despite his joking demeanor, he was flanked by two large security guards as he shook hands after his talk.
Lydia Breisth ’02 reacted to their presence. “I think it shows how committed he is, but it also shows how committed the people he’s trying to stop are,” she said.
The conference is sponsored by the Cornell Religious Studies Program, the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy and Cornell United Religious Work.
It continues throughout this week and will feature a series of panels, teaching workshops and lectures. Dees encouraged Cornell students, in particular, to attend the conference as the majority of his audience was composed of members of the Ithaca community.
Archived article by April Sommer