Hard Battles Won BY JAMES C. HARRINGTON A SEASON FOR JUSTICE: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees. by Morris Dees with Steve Fiffer. 368 pp. New York: Touchstone Books/ A Simon and Schuster Trade Paperback. $12. EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE we stand face to face with an event powerful enough to transform our lives. Most of us are not up to the moral challenge but, for the few who are, their lives change so dramatically that they become heroes for the rest of us heroes with an immense capacity for changing society. Morris Dees is one of those heroes. Dees accepted the challenge and has enormously contributed to the cause of justice. His book, A Season for Justice, written with Steve Fiffer, not only chronicles Dees’ personal odyssey but also discusses the role he has played in undermining racism in America. A Season for Justice speaks eloquently from the heart. It is an extraordinary saga of dedication and risk to personal safety, a gripping narrative that leads effortlessly from cover to cover through vignettes, photos, personal reflections and case histories sprinkled with dramatic trial and deposition excerpts. The event that changed Dees’ life and shook him from a complacent career as an entrepreneur who successfully dabbled in law, occurred in February 1986 at the Cincinnati airport, where Dees, on his way to Chicago to sell a lucrative publishing enterprise to the Times-Mirror Corp., was grounded by a snowstorm. In the airport in Cincinnati, Dees came across a paperback copy of Clarence Darrow’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. By dawn he was finished reading the book. So inspired was he by Darrow’s having given up a prosperous law practice representing the railroads to become an advocate of the powerless and working people organized against the giant business oligarchies, that Dees abandoned his business and legal career and entered the battle for civil rights. In A Season for Justice Dees, a 56-yearold native Alabaman and grandson of a Klansman, describes the basic sense of fairness that guided his parents, who, while no proponents of integration, were far ahead of their time. Dees learned something about racism early in his career when he defended one of his father’s workers who had been wrongly James C. Harrington is Legal Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin. 18 DECEMBER 25, 1992 accused of drunken driving. Dees lost the case, but learned firsthand that justice could depend on race. The book is dedicated to his father. Dees discusses his education in a system of segregated schools that in his day in the South extended from kindergarten through the University of Alabama Law School, where he graduated in 1960. There was also his education as an entrepreneur, which began with delivering newspapers and selling watermelons, compost and peaches, and lead through the “Bama Birthday Cake” business, and selling recipe books through the mail which taught Dees to write sales copy, design offers and send mailouts at opportune times. It was for his success as an direct-mail entrepreneur that the Jaycees named Dees one of America’s 10 outstanding young men. His direct mail and entrepreneurial skills also placed Dees in a position to supervise George McGovern’s direct-mail solicitations, raise funds for Jimmy Carter’s first White House run \(he supported Teddy Kennedy .the second time around and, more importantly, in 1971 to found and then support the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fellow recipe-book salesman and law partner Millard Fuller went on to organize Habitat for Humanity. There are also reflections on eloping as a senior in high school and on subsequent marriages, and interesting anecdotes showing Dees’ feisty, albeit soft-spoken, personality and clever ability to bluff, in both business and law, in a way that would make any self-respecting poker player envious. Dees didn’t even shirk from holding a shotgun to intimidate a Klansman. ASeason for Justice begins with two flashbacks. The first is Dees’ awakening to racism. In July 1947, as a 10 year-old, he helped Billy Lucas, an African American, harvest and deliver the season’s first bale of cotton, which meant a front-page photograph in the Montgomery Advertiser and a high bid for the honor of delivering the first bale. But Lucas had beaten out one of the area’s big planters, who proceeded to rant about Dees’ father letting Dees and eight field hands from the family’s Mount Meigs farm help a black. Morris Dees watched as an uncle said nothing in his father’s defense. The second scene is Christmas 1984, when Dees and his 14-year-old daughter Ellie were trimming the tree, and suddenly had to take refuge in the pantry of their house, armed, Aile two security guards armed with machine guns searched the grounds outside the house for intruders bent on doing Dees harm. When the “all clear” was sounded some hours later and Dees finally went to bed, he found that his daughter had placed above his pillow the angel that was to go on top of the family Christmas tree. Dees also recounts two poignant events that prepared him for the Clarence Darrow “awakening.” In 1961, as a private practitioner, Dees had represented a local racist accused of beating a television reporter who was filming a crowd of 1,000 whites beating Freedom Riders in Montgomery. As Dees left the courtroom, one of the Freedom Riders confronted him and asked: “Don’t you think that black people have rights?” Dees was also moved by the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church, which killed four girls attending Sunday School. At the Pike Road Baptist Church, Dees asked his own congregation to help the black congregation. His request “hit their frozen hearts and fell to the floor.” His coreligionists wouldn’t even pray for the girls, Dees wrote, causing him to leave the Baptist Church. Dees, who has devoted his life to fighting and extirpating the Ku Klux Klan, has faced two death sentences, transmitted nationwide on Aryan Nations Net, the KKK computer bulletin board, which also regularly posted his expected whereabouts. The names of two other men were also circulated on the Klan’s death list: Norman Lear, the television producer and progressive cause activist and funder, and Alan Berg, a Denver talk-show host assassinated in 1984. Time magazine once named Dees the “second most-hated man in Alabama.” The first was United States District Judge Frank Johnson, an Eisenhower appointee who issued most of the orders desegregating Alabama and protecting the rights of the state’s African Americans, many times in cases brought by Dees or the Southern Poverty Law Center. Not only was the personal risk grave, but the Center’s office was burned in 1983, after the organization initiated its Klanwatch program. In the book Dees tells of his sudcessful effort to bring the arsonists to justice. The new Center is now Montgomery’s premier tourist attraction. The list of cases taken to court by Dees and the Center are impressive and important. They include: Requiring, in 1969, that Auburn University allow the Rev. William Sloane Coffin to speak on campus in opposition to the Vietnam war; ending discrimination at the Montgomery YMCA; reinstating a teacher fired for using Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to Monkey House in class; attacking regulations that gave servicemen more benefits than servicewomen; suing the Montgomery Advertiser for refusing to print a photograph of an AfricanAmerican couple in the Sunday society sec
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