wwwDissing Morris Dees

They call him America's favorite Nazi hunter. For the past 25 years, Alabama attorney Morris Dees Jr. and his Southern Poverty Law Center have pursued the country's most notorious Klansmen and white supremacists, using the law against them like a sword.But Dees is on a controversial hot seat himself. His nemesis is not a neo-Nazi, but two highly respected muckrakers. In the May 15 issue of the newsletter CounterPunch, radical journalists Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein called Dees "a fraud, the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement."Their scathing expose alleges that Dees has exaggerated the actual menace posed by right-wing hate groups in a move designed to attract donations to his organizations. The Southern Poverty Law Center takes in contributions of $40,000 a day, much of it from poor people, but dispenses few funds to protect the poor or its civil rights, according to Cockburn and Silverstein.Dees has fought back by issuing a detailed, 19-point rebuttal to the article written by the two journalists. "They're a weird bunch," he said. "They juxtapose things that happened in different time periods and they were not very accurate in anything they wrote."Dees was born in 1936 at Shorter, Ala., the son of a farmer and cotton gin operator. During undergraduate work at the University of Alabama, he founded a direct mail publishing business that grew to be one of the largest publishing companies in the South. When the company's sales reached $15 million in 1969,Dees sold it to the parent company of the Los Angeles Times.He formed the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971, an organization that purports to have more than 300,000 contributors. Klanwatch, a sister organization, was set up in 1980. It monitors hate groups and develops legal strategies for protecting citizens from violence-prone groups. Dees' successful battle against Klan groups have brought him respect and recognition. NBC aired a made-for-television movie about Dees in 1991. The movie highlighted Dees' winning of a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America. The precedent-setting judgment was on behalf of the mother of Michael Donald, a young black man lynched by the Klan in Mobile, Ala. Dees has trumpeted the victory in fundraising solicitations ever since.But Cockburn and Silverstein claim the solicitations grossly exaggerate the role Dees played in winning any justice for Donald's mother, Beulah Mae. Dees brags that he bankrupted the Klan. But United Klans' entire assets consisted of one warehouse, according to the journalists. The Dees victory netted the mother a mere $52,000, a fact conveniently omitted from fundraising materials, they say. But Dees calls it a flat lie, citing a quote by Ms. Donald in a fundraising brochure as evidence: "Since the Klan and its members have little money, about all my family got financially was the United Klans of America's national headquarters." She was able to use the proceeds to move out of public housing and into a new home.Dees also skewers the two muckrakers for downplaying other valuable programs at his Montgomery-based headquarters, programs not specifically involved with court battles against Klansmen. One is known as "Teaching Tolerance," a project that helps teachers promote interracial and intercultural understanding in the classroom.

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