The march continues

At the eighth annual Martin Luther King Jr. dinner, Morris Dees declares that ‘justice is alive in this nation’

Famed civil-rights attorney Morris Dees has taken on Klansman and Minutemen-like border-patrollers.

Famed civil-rights attorney Morris Dees has taken on Klansman and Minutemen-like border-patrollers.

Civil rights in America has taken three steps forward and two steps back since Martin Luther King Jr. led the movement in the early 1960s, but the march for equal justice continues.

Speaking to nearly 600 Sacramentans at the eighth annual Martin Luther King Jr. fund-raising dinner Saturday night, famed civil-rights lawyer Morris Dees spoke of the many battles for equal rights that have marked this country’s history—including the lynchings, prejudice and discrimination perpetrated against Irish immigrants in the 1850s and against black Americans across the centuries. But Dees described America’s constantly changing nature as its strength.

“America is a nation of laws—laws to protect the minority from having their rights violated by the majority,” said Dees, who gained celebrity over the past three decades for winning civil judgments against the White Aryan Resistance and Ku Klux Klan large enough to bankrupt or seriously hamper the ability of those organizations to continue spreading their messages of hate. “Justice is alive in this nation.”

If Dr. King were alive today, Dees said, he would have led the march for equal pay and opportunity for women, for equal treatment for gays and lesbians, and for health care for the poor. “He would have led the march for migrant workers in America—mostly Latinos—who are roundly cheated by companies that bring in guest workers,” he said.

Recent lawsuits by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which Dees co-founded 35 years ago in Montgomery, Ala., seek compensation for illegal treatment of guest workers by companies such as Del Monte. And anti-immigrant vigilantes were forced to pay for misconduct against immigrants by suits brought by the SPLC, including the August 2005 judgment awarding two Salvadorans a 70-acre ranch near Douglas, Ariz., that formerly belonged to men who illegally detained and assaulted them on a Texas ranch in 2003.

In naming Dees to its list of America’s 100 most influential lawyers last summer, the National Law Journal cited the center’s work on this last case for “closing down Ranch Rescue, the self-styled border patrol that allegedly terrorized people crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.”

The controversial Dees and the SPLC, where he is chief trial counsel, have come under fire over the years from those it fights against and others who take issue with its methods. In 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser, in stories that later were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, documented racial-discrimination claims by former black employees of the SPLC and a host of other charges, including erroneous claims in fund-raising letters. Others have criticized fund-raising efforts with a former partner, anti-death penalty lawyer Millard Farmer, famously remarking in a 2000 story in Harpers that Dees “is the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement … though I don’t mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye.”

For his many positive contributions to human rights in America, Dees is much sought after as a speaker at Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.

At the convention center on Saturday, Dees said that King often spoke of his dream that one day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down together. “Love of one another is necessary to close the gaps that separate us,” he said.

C.C. Yin, Sacramento community leader and owner of nearly two dozen McDonald’s restaurants in Northern California, was honored during the dinner with the 2007 Robert T. Matsui Community Service Award. In accepting the award, he said, “Dr. King’s dream goes on forever—he gave us the opportunity to be real Americans.”