Legendary civil rights activist and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Morris Dees spoke to members of the Santa Barbara community Wednesday evening, speaking on the need to teach tolerance, love, and respect.
Dees spoke at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, but spoke with the Santa Barbara Independent prior to his public address.
“Most people think that the Civil Rights movement ended and it’s over with and is history now and Dr. King died, and that’s it. I want to talk about how the march for justice continues,” Dees said.
Dees co-founded the SPLC in 1971 and has since helped fight and dismantle several hate groups including the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan. In his address to the Santa Barbara community, Dees highlighted several important issues, the most memorable of which was immigration and his disdain for Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the issue.
Trump, in his bid for the presidency, has made several controversial comments on immigration, including referring to Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.” He has also advocated for the deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants and for the construction of a fence on the border of Mexico.
“If I could give him any advice, I would tell him to make that fence have a wide walking path on top, because one day we might be able to get tourists to use it like they do in China,” Dees said.
Dees said that when he was young, about 15 percent of people in the U.S. were people of color, a number that has now grown to about 36-37 percent. This changing demographic has created “enormous fear” among privileged people who believe that those who do not look like them should not “share in the benefits of this nation,” according to Dees.
Dees told the story of a legal case he took defending a group of Vietnamese immigrants, who were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan’s Texas Knights after the immigrants had upset certain American fisherman by sharing their waters in the shrimping industry. American fisherman, unhappy and as Dees’ described “probably jealous” of the success of the Vietnamese, enlisted the help of the Texas Knights to drive the Vietnamese out of “their” waters.
The SPLC got involved and brought a civil law suit against the Texas Knights, the result of which was an injunction demanding that the Knights and American fisherman stay away from the Vietnamese or face prison sentences.
After a legal victory, Dees was invited by the Vietnamese and their families to attend the blessing of their fleet of boats. Surrounding Dees at the blessing were U.S. Marshals, sent to ensure the injunction was carried out.
“America is a nation of laws,” Dees said.
“I not only felt proud to be an American, not only proud to be their lawyer, but proud to see the majesty of our American justice system at work, and for the first time in my life I realized that America’s great because of its diversity, not in spite of it,” Dees continued.
Aside from immigration, Dees also touched on issues such LGBT rights, hate and extremism, economic inequality, and mass incarceration.