Civil rights icon Morris Dees of Southern Poverty Law Center to speak April 13 at Wayne Law

DETROIT – Morris Dees, who is widely celebrated for his civil rights work with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which he co-founded, will speak Monday, April 13, at Wayne State University Law School.

Using litigation, education and other forms of advocacy, the Southern Poverty Law Center works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality. Its lawsuits have toppled institutional racism in the South, bankrupted some of the nation’s most violent white supremacist groups and won justice for exploited workers, abused prison inmates, disabled children and other victims of discrimination.

The lecture, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in the Spencer M. Partrich Auditorium at the law school, 471 W. Palmer St. The event will begin with a reception for Dees, and the lecture will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience. Parking will be available for $7 (credit and debit cards only) in Structure One across West Palmer Street from Wayne Law.

Dees’ presentation, “With Justice for All in a Changing America,” is expected to include his thoughts on Viola Gregg Liuzzo. Liuzzo, a mother of five and nursing student at Wayne State, was killed in 1965 in Selma, Ala., after answering the call from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for volunteers to assist with voting rights demonstrations. She will be honored posthumously by the university Friday, April 10, at Wayne Law with an honorary doctor of laws degree for her contributions to society. It will be the first honorary degree awarded posthumously in the university’s history.

Dees’ presentation is the third installment of the annual Dean A. Robb Public Interest Lecture Series, which is presented by Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. The series is intended to inspire law students, attorneys, public-interest groups and everyday citizens to become more active in public service and public-interest law.

The series is made possible by the Royal Oak law firm of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers PC and supported by the Public Justice Foundation. Michael Pitt, Wayne Law class of 1974, is managing partner of the firm. The series honors Robb, a 1949 Wayne Law alumnus, noted civil rights attorney and social activist.

Dees was born in 1936, the son of cotton farmers in Alabama. As a young boy, he worked the fields with blacks, witnessing first-hand social and economic deprivation and Jim Crow treatment at its worst.

While attending the University of Alabama Law School, he met Millard Fuller. The two formed a successful mail-order publishing company while still in law school. After graduation, they moved their business to Montgomery. Fuller left the company in 1965 and later founded Habitat for Humanity. Dees continued the business and also practiced law, taking controversial civil rights cases.

In 1970, he sold the publishing company to a major national firm and formed the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Early cases tackled by the center included the integration of the Alabama State Troopers and the desegregation of the Montgomery YMCA. The center, funded by donations from more than 300,000 people across the nation, quickly grew into one of America’s most successful public-interest law firms.

Dees has received numerous awards in conjunction with his work. The U.S. Jaycees chose him as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America for his early business success. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named him Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987. In 2009, he was inducted into the Trial Lawyers’ Hall of Fame by the American Trial Lawyers’ Association. The American Bar Association honored him in 2012 with the ABA Medal, the organization’s highest honor.

Back to listing

Advocating for justice, serving the community, revitalizing Detroit and Michigan