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Ware Lecture by Morris Dees, General Assembly 2000

General Assembly 2000 Event 460

"Responding to Hate: Voices of Hope and Tolerance,"

Presented by Morris Dees, Head of the Southern Poverty Law Foundation

Rev. John Buehrens, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), introduced Sunday's Ware Lecture as "among the most beloved" of "our living traditions:" an opportunity to hear about one of the leading social issues of the day from a leading figure of the day: "Morris Dees joins us in a long line of luminaries who have graced us with their presence at General Assemblies through the years," said Rev. Buehrens.

Dees began by speaking of the little Baptist church he grew up in, and its teachings of moral and social values, and his Sunday morning experience of pledging allegiance to the flag behind the pulpit. He accepted that America is a great nation. He hailed the Unitarian Universalists as "one of my favorite religious groups" for their willingness to stand for justice.

Yet today's America is marred by intolerance and divisiveness, and this leads unsurprisingly to a culture of fear and violence. We have made progress against poverty in our land and genocide in other parts of the world, Dees continued, but "an ill wind is blowing across our nation." He noted the violent deaths of Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd, other killings motivated by ethnic differences, the nine thousand hate crimes committed each year in the United States, and active hate sites on the Internet.

The battle, Dees suggested to the large crowd of Unitarian Universalists, is around whose America this is, whose version of America will prevail into the next century. Timothy McVeigh, he reminded the crowd, thought that he was doing a patriotic good deed when he lit explosives in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Congratulating the UUA for passing a resolution on economic justice, and noting the historical role of Unitarians and Universalists in supporting diversity, Dees called on Unitarian Universalists to reach out to victims of hate groups to say "we're with you," and to build bridges across differences.

He told the story of Tom Metzgar's teaching of hate, and the fruit of that teaching in the murder of an Ethiopian immigrant in Portland, OR. Not only were the three who were directly responsible for the killing imprisoned for their crime, but a civil suit was able to hold Metzgar responsible for his role, too.

He told the story of Billings, MT, after a brick was thrown through a window in a home displaying a menorah. Saying "not in our town," an overwhelming number of Billings citizens displayed solidarity with the targeted Jewish family by displaying in their windows paper menorahs.

We need, Dees said, to understand and accept those who are different, to appreciate and accept what each person brings to the table, to sit down at the table of personhood and to truly love one another. From his mother Dees learned that "it doesn't take much yeast to make the bread rise," and he urged that the Unitarian Universalists, too, work for justice and tolerance until "justice flows down like water."

He closed with a plea for support for the tolerance movement, using the "dictionary definition" of tolerance as "appreciating and accepting those who are different." He asked that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) sign the tolerance declaration and explore the citizens' action kits available in the hall. He told us that, as part of this project, the Rosa Parks story will be distributed free of charge to schools across America to help in teaching tolerance.

Morris Dees, campaigner against hate, left the stage to the standing ovation of the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2000. As he greeted well-wishers and as he left the hall, Dees was protected by police, a sobering reminder that hate is alive in America, and that it takes courage and commitment to take up the battle for a different vision of America's future.

Morris Dees

Trial lawyer and successful businessman Morris Dees comes from modest roots as the son of an Alabama farmer. Throughout his childhood he witnessed firsthand the painful consequences of prejudice and racial injustice. In 1967, Dees took up the fight for justice in his own way by taking controversial cases that were highly unpopular among the white community. As he continued to pursue equal opportunities for minorities and the poor, Dees and his law partner, Joseph J. Levin Jr., saw the need for a non-profit organization dedicated to seeking justice. In 1971, the two lawyers and civil rights activist Julian Bond founded the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Dees has received numerous awards in conjunction with his work at the Center. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named him Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987, and he received the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association in 1990. The American Bar Association gave him its Young Lawyers Distinguished Service Award, and the American Civil Liberties Union honored Dees with its Roger Baldwin Award. Colleges and universities have recognized his accomplishments with honorary degrees, and the University of Alabama gave Dees its Humanitarian Award in 1993.

Dees' autobiography, A Season For Justice, was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 199 1. His second book, Hate on Trial: The Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi, was published by Villard Books in 1993. It chronicles the trial and $12.5 million judgment against white supremacist Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance group for their responsibility in the beating death by Skinheads of a young black student in Portland, Oregon. His latest book, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat, exposes the danger posed by today's domestic terrorist groups. It was published by HarperCollins Publishers in 1996.

Dees is chief trial counsel and chair of the executive committee for the Southern Poverty Law Center. He devotes his time to suing hate groups, developing ideas for Teaching Tolerance, the Center's, education project, and mapping new directions for the Center.

Reported by Rev. Jone Johnson Lewis.

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