INSIDE Chico State
0 March 29, 2001
Volume 31 Number 13
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Morris Dees Responds to Hate with Hope, Tolerance, and Lawsuits

Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center
Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center

(Photo by Barbara Alderson)

Morris Dees believes "there is an ill wind blowing across this nation," an ill wind of divisiveness, prejudice, and hate crimes perpetuated by people who would deny the diversity that has made our nation strong. Dees has won lawsuits that severely limit the ability of hate groups to function. He believes that the financial weakening of hate groups through courtroom victories coupled with building bridges across the divides of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disabilities, age, and class can calm the wind and build a just nation.

Dees is the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization bringing and winning lawsuits against those committing civil rights violations and hate crimes. He and civil rights leader Rosa Parks co-chair the National Campaign for Tolerance. His talk, at CSU, Chico, "Responding to Hate: Voices of Hope and Tolerance," was sponsored by Building Bridges.

"The FBI tells us that last year approximately 10,000 hate crimes were committed in this country," said Dees. "They range from the beating to death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming because of his sexual orientation, to the dragging to death of James Byrd in Texas behind a pickup truck driven by a couple of Klansmen simply because of the color of his skin, to the Redding shooting of two gay men."

There are now 450 hate Web sites, up from only one in 1995, noted Dees.

"We are engaged in a battle over whose America this is, and whose version of our nation is going to prevail."

Dees first got involved in 1988 in the case of Mulugeta Seraw. The young Ethiopian came to Portland, Oregon, to attend college, but he couldn't afford to bring his wife and son with him. He attended school full-time and worked to send money to Ethiopia to his

family. During this same time, Tom Metzger in California had organized the White Aryan Resistancec (WAR), a hate

organization with about 50 chapters. Its followers were encouraged to commit acts of violence against "Americans of African descent, Asian descent, Hispanics, Jews, and others," explained Dees.

Metzger sent a young organizer to Portland to recruit members. The recruiter was successful, and one evening three skinheads, new WAR recruits, accosted Seraw as he came home from work. They pushed him, punched him, "blindsided him with a baseball bat and crushed his skull. Mulugeta died that night," said Dees

After the skinheads were tried and convicted, Dees sued Metzger to obtain money to help Seraw's family. The recruiter agreed to testify against Metzger. In closing arguments, Dees cited the contributions of Jonas Salk, Colin Powell, and others, all from groups Metzger hated. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, you know, the America that Tom Metzger believes in is an America that never existed. Our nation is great because of our differences, because of our diversity, not in spite of it." The jury awarded Seraw's family $12.5 million. "We took his business, his property; his organization is now a mere shell of itself, and every month he has to send a check to that family in Ethiopia." Seraw's son is currently a university student in California.

Dees encouraged the audience to continue their involvement in building bridges of acceptance, and to not give up, no matter how difficult it may seem, just as Martin Luther King Jr. did not give up. "When Dr. King led the civil rights movement, he understood something that is basic and fundamental, that has moved people and has moved nations, and that is a burning desire people have for fairness and justice," said Dees. "In the words of the prophet Amos... the words that were used by Dr. Martin Luther King so often, you will not be satisfied until justice does roll down like waters."

Barbara Alderson
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