Southern Poverty Law Center fires co-founder Morris Dees

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Morris Dees, the co-founder and chief trial lawyer of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been fired after 48 years. The organization confirmed the departure to WSFA 12 News Thursday. The exact reason for his termination was not released.

The SPLC issued the following statement from Richard Cohen, its president:

“Effective yesterday, Morris Dees’ employment at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was terminated. 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. 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.

“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.

“The SPLC is deeply committed to having a workplace that reflects the values it espouses – truth, justice, equity and inclusion, and we believe the steps we have taken today reaffirm that commitment.”

Dees told the Associated Press that the matter was a personnel issue but wished the organization luck.

His biography became unavailable on the SPLC’s website Thursday morning and had been replaced by a graphic that said “Access Denied You are not authorized to access this page.” And his name and photo had also been removed from the site’s leadership team page before any announcement was made.

The biography page for SPLC co-founder Morris Dees was made unavailable Thursday morning.
The biography page for SPLC co-founder Morris Dees was made unavailable Thursday morning.

Born in 1936 in Shorter, Alabama, to a poor cotton farmer, Dees grew up in the Souths’ Jim Crow era where he witnessed unfair treatment of minorities. He initially wanted to be a farmer or a Southern Baptist preacher, according to a biographical release in 2012 by the American Bar Association, which was presenting him with its highest award at the time.

Dees became neither of his original aspirations. Instead, he attended the University of Alabama and later formed a publishing company with Millard Fuller, a fellow UA law school grad and future founder of Habitat for Humanity.

In 1960, he moved into the legal field, taking mostly civil rights cases to fight for integration.

In 1971, along with Julian Bond and Joseph Levin, Jr., Dees formed the Southern Poverty Law Center, a public interest law firm funded by donations. Its early cases included integrating the Alabama State Troopers and the Montgomery YMCA.

The SPLC monitors groups it says spread hate, but it’s grown from a small organization based in Montgomery to an expansive, operation with hundreds of employees at offices in four states and an endowment approaching a half-billion dollars.

Dees, who has published several books, is also the focus of an 1991 NBC movie called "Line of Fire,” which dramatizes his fight against the Ku Klux Klan, including a $7 million judgment on behalf of the mother of a black man who was lynched in Mobile.

To date, he holds nearly two dozen honorary degrees, multiple awards, and was named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal in 2006.

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