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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My hunch is that unwelcome advances were involved. As to this:

    Few 82-year-olds, indeed, belong in leadership positions.

    According to the Guardian,

    Dees said he had not overseen the daily operations of the center for several years. A spokesman for the SPLC said Dees had transferred to an emeritus role and came into the office occasionally.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Yes, that’s fair. But clearly he was still managing to embarrass the organization when he was around—and was able to do so because of his stature.

  3. Eric Florack says:

    What we have here is a case of the snake eating itself. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bigot.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: Yep. I do wonder exactly how long is “several years”? The vagueness implies a fairly recent time line, 2-3 years as opposed to 6-7 years.

  5. Gustopher says:

    @Eric Florack: Indeed. If this turns out to be bigotry — and in an 82 year old man that seems possible — he is likely one of the nicer bigots, if not the nicest bigot. He has devoted his life to identifying and opposing bigotry, and he may have not quite lived up to his ideals. It happens, and if it indeed happened, then he should be praised for his efforts, as much as he is condemned for his lapses.

    But what’s your excuse?

  6. Slugger says:

    At some point, people should have the good sense to let go of the reins and step away. Sooner or later, old guys do something that soils their achievements. I am thinking of Joe Paterno as one example of many. Without knowing the specifics, I guess that Dees overstepped some boundaries. Sad.

  7. wr says:

    Sorry to see him go. He was great in Purple Rain.

  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Nicely said. Thank you.

  9. Mister Bluster says:

    …the snake eating itself.
    A contortion you are familiar with since your head is always up your arse!

  10. Eric Florack says:
  11. Eric Florack says:
    as you see in the article above, nothing could be further from the truth than what you said here.

  12. Eric Florack says:

    Or if you prefer, this…


    On Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced it had fired co-founder Morris Dees. In a statement, SPLC President Richard Cohen suggested the dismissal was linked to conduct, but gave no specific reason.

    “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 statement shared with The Associated Press. “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.”

    The events have drawn attention to Dees’s past. Co-founded in 1971 by Dees and fellow attorney Joseph Levin, Jr., the SPLC eventually grew into a legal powerhouse, winning numerous high-profile civil rights cases and changing legislation in Alabama. But the Center—spearheaded by its former chief trial counsel—has faced allegations of racism within its walls.

    In 1994, The Montgomery Advertiser published a Pulitzer Prize-nominated series that delved into claims of racism and other misconduct at the SPLC’s Montgomery headquarters.

    In internal documents reviewed by the newspaper, staffers accused Dees of racism. The memos portrayed a culture in which black employees “felt threatened and banded together,” the Advertiser reported.

    The article questioned the lack of black staffers at top levels of the SPLC—only one department head out of eight was black at the time, it stated—and detailed dissatisfaction among black employees.

    needless to say there’s a long history of this stuff what’s the article goes into in some detail

  13. An Interested Party says:

    A person who doesn’t seem to mind the n word being sprinkled all over his blog really has no business accusing anyone else of being a bigot…

  14. Gustopher says:

    @Eric Florack: This changes nothing that I wrote. A man is more than just their worst actions — you have to balance the good they have done with the bad. The SPLC has tracked the rise of hate crimes and hate groups in this country, and has had a genuinely beneficial effect.

    People don’t always live up to their ideals. People are hypocrites. People are a complicated mess of contradictions. But, I reject your assertions that whatever he has or has not done here invalidates all the good he and his organization have done.

    Someday, when you’ve done something good, perhaps people will have to reassess their views of you, with more nuance than noting your racist statements on your blog.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Eric Florack: All of that is in the OP. Not surprising since the Montgomery Advertiser broke the story 25 years ago.

    @Gustopher: While I agree that Dees did more good than harm, the fact that most of this has been public knowledge for a quarter century and he’s been allowed to stay on in a leadership position says something about the SPLC—if only that it’s an organization run by humans and humans find it really hard to do the right thing sometimes.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: I find the “AHA! So-and-so has done X, which invalidates everything else they have done” argument that Florack is using tiresome. It’s tiresome on the left too. It’s just trying to score points, rather than making a point.

    Yes, Robert Byrd was once in the Klan, but that doesn’t mean the Democrats are the real racists. Etc.

    Tucker Carlson sad some stupid things about child rape on a shock jock she decades ago, but that doesn’t invalidate his years of normalizing white supremacist attitudes…

    Dumping one of the founders of an organization is hard and divisive — it can bring down an organization. It’s often easier and better to just sideline them as much as possible and leave it at that. That seems to be what the SPLC was doing for years before something caused that to be unsustainable. It’s not some amazing aha moment that reveals the real truth behind everything, it’s just disappointing.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Well said again! In both cases! Thank you again.