Morris Dees spoke at UCSB on October 21, the cofounder, in 1971, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a courageous defender of the disenfranchised — poor, minorities, immigrants, and others in the over 40 years since then. In Dees’s case, courageous takes on a greater meaning, as much of his work was against hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation. He won criminal and crippling financial judgments against them and, in the process, inspired a steady, and serious, stream of death threats.
His talk was quite inspiring, not least for his highly unassuming manner. The talk, concise and to the point, focused on two of his cases. One defended the rights of Vietnamese immigrant fishermen in Texas who were being terrorized by their white counterparts, aided by the Ku Klux Klan. The second concerned a young black man, selected completely at random, who was beaten and lynched as retribution for a court ruling that angered the Klan. The killers were brought to justice, but Dees and his colleagues went the further step of tasking the larger Ku Klux Klan organization for its part in precipitating this crime. The all-white jury affirmed the charges, and the court imposed a $7 million judgment against the Klan, which forced it into bankruptcy.
I expected to be deeply moved by Morris Dees, and I was not disappointed. Unfortunately, my expectations were fulfilled in another, less positive, regard. I cringed when it was announced that there would be a question and answer period following the talk. As has come to be all too predictable, the people presumably taking the opportunity to ask Dees questions, chose instead to ramble on about themselves or their organization before finally, if ever, getting to a question. In the midst of the third of these dissertations I left, as did others, muttering in disgust about this same issue. A friend who stayed longer told me that at some point, Dees would ask what their question was.
I hope people will realize that we come to hear a valued speaker, not them, and that we would like this brief and precious time with that speaker spent more productively. I would also encourage moderators at such events to sternly admonish Q&A participants to restrict themselves to questions, and to keep them short and sweet.
I thank UCSB and the Capps Center for their thoughtfulness in making this outstanding lecture available to our community.