Morris Dees Fired Under Mysterious Circumstances
The Southern Law Poverty Center has fired its co-founder for vaguely-specified reasons.
Montgomery Advertiser (“Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder Morris Dees“):
The Southern Poverty Law Center fired Morris Dees, the nonprofit civil rights organization’s co-founder and former chief litigator.
SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a statement Dees’ dismissal over his misconduct was effective on Wednesday, March 13. When pressed for details on what led to the termination, the organization declined to elaborate.
“As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world,” Cohen said in the emailed statement. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.”
Dees, 82, co-founded the Montgomery-based organization in 1971.
“It was not my decision, what they did,” Dees said when reached by phone. “I wish the center the absolute best. Whatever reasons they had of theirs, I don’t know.”
On Thursday, he said he hadn’t tried a case in at least a decade and hadn’t recently been involved in the day-to-day operations of the SPLC.
Dees’ termination is one of several steps taken by the organization this week, Cohen said.
“Today we announced a number of immediate, concrete next steps we’re taking, including bringing in an outside organization to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices, to ensure that our talented staff is working in the environment that they deserve — one in which all voices are heard and all staff members are respected,” Cohen said.
What the SPLC wants the “next steps” to address or correct remains unclear. An SPLC spokesperson said the organization was “in the process of hiring” the firm for the workplace climate assessment, and no other leadership changes had been announced.
A message seeking further comment was left on Cohen’s cell phone Thursday afternoon.
“I’ve read the statement they issued,” Dees said when asked if he knew why he was fired. “I feel like some of the things in the statement were unfortunate. But I refuse to say anything negative about the center or its employees. I’ll let my life’s work and reputation speak for itself.”
When asked if he was offered the chance to resign or retire, the 82-year-old said, “I’ve told you all I can tell you.”
Dees’ biography appeared scrubbed from the SPLC’s website as news broke of his termination on Thursday afternoon.
A Montgomery native, Dees attended Sidney Lanier High School. He burnished his marketing chops by managing a direct sale book publishing company while attending the University of Alabama, where he also earned a law degree.
After returning home to establish a law practice in 1960, Dees won a series of civil rights cases before establishing the SPLC with lawyer Joseph J. Levin Jr. and civil rights activist Julian Bond a decade later.
The legal partnership netted significant civil rights triumphs. Dees challenged systemic discrimination and segregation in Alabama state trooper ranks in a case won in the U.S. Supreme Court. SPLC litigation challenging Alabama’s legislative districts forced the state to redraw its districts in the early 1970s, leading to the election of more than a dozen black legislators in 1974.
Early SPLC lawsuits also fought for better conditions for cotton mill workers in Kentucky, women in the workplace and poor defendants on death row. The organization bankrupted a Ku Klux Klan Organization, the United Klans of America, in a 1987 civil case.
WaPo (“Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder, declines to say what he’s alleged to have done“) adds:
Dees told the Associated Press his firing involved a “personnel issue,” but declined to offer more information.
“I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is a very fine group and I devoted nearly 50 years of my life to it and I’m proud of its work,” Dees told the AP. “About being fired, all I can say is it wasn’t my decision and I wish the center the best.”
Founded in the deep south on the heels of the civil rights movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center began as a small firm dedicated to fighting racism and segregation. Dees co-founded the organization in 1971 with Joseph Levin. Jr., and in the 48 years since, it has grown into a large and influential advocacy organization, cited by news outlets and lawmakers, with a revenue of more than $120,000,000, according to 2017 tax documents.
Dees’s biography was scrubbed from the SPLC’s website by Thursday afternoon, but a cached version of the page lists awards he received and lauds him for “innovative lawsuits that crippled some of America’s most notorious white supremacist hate groups.”
He famously represented the family of Michael Donald, a black 19-year-old who was brutally murdered and then hanged at the hands of the United Klans of America. The family was awarded $7 million in damages in 1987, effectively bankrupting United Klans. Donald’s mother was awarded the Klans’ only asset, their national headquarters building in Tuscaloosa.
In 2006, the National Law Journal named Dees one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the United States.
Dees’ leadership has not been without controversy. As the Advertiser report goes on to note,
Dees has been a fixture in politics since the group’s ascension, though his organization has faced scrutiny in the past.
A 1994 Montgomery Advertiser series provided a deep look into the organization controlled by the multimillionaire Dees, illustrating his near-singular control over the organization and its mammoth budget.
The series, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, revealed a figure seen as heroic by some and single-minded by others. Dees’ critics said he was more concerned with fundraising than litigating.
The series also alleged discriminatory treatment of black employees within the advocacy group, despite its outward efforts to improve the treatment of minorities in the country. Staffers at the time “accused Morris Dees, the center’s driving force, of being a racist and black employees have ‘felt threatened and banded together.'” The organization denied the accusations raised in the series.
“I would hope the IRS and the Justice Department would take this as [an] opportunity to come in and take a close look at The Center, it’s finances and it’s day-to-day operations,” said Jim Tharpe, managing editor of the Advertiser in the mid-1990s, who oversaw the Advertiser series. “It’s long overdue.”
Iconic figures often become controversial over time. Dees is an old man. Attitudes that were phenomenally progressive in 1960—let alone in Alabama—were retrograde in 1994, let alone 2018. Few 82-year-olds, indeed, belong in leadership positions.
UPDATE: Matt Pearce at the LAT (“Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder Morris Dees amid employee uproar“) adds more:
The Times has also learned that the organization, whose leadership is predominantly white, has been wrestling with complaints of workplace mistreatment of women and people of color. It was not immediately clear whether those issues were connected to the firing of Dees, who is 82.
Also Thursday, employees sent correspondence to management demanding reforms, expressing concerns about the resignation last week of a highly respected black attorney at the organization and criticizing the organization’s work culture.
A letter signed by about two dozen employees — and sent to management and the board of directors before news broke of Dees’ firing — said they were concerned that internal “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”
It’s becoming more clear that the Advertiser investigation in 1994—a quarter century ago—was on the right track. And that the SLPC did very little to correct things.