How my parents taught me about civil rights

Morris Dees, Esq. Civil Rights Attorney, explains how his parents taught him about civil rights and shares advice on how parents can teach their own kids
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How my parents taught me about civil rights

When I was born in 1936 in a farming community in rural Alabama, segregation was the law of the land – Jim Crow. There were blacks, worked on the fields and whites on the land. I guess I was fortunate that my parents didn’t own any land, so I had to work in the fields. We were tenant farmers, sharecroppers, so to speak. And when I was out there picking that cotton in those hot fields, I had no idea that I would ever become a civil rights lawyer. And I guess the reason I drifted in that direction was because of my father and my mother. My dad wasn’t a liberal, he wasn’t a conservative, he was just a good person. And I remember back in those days when there was a white drinking fountain and a black drinking fountain in public buildings. I would bring the bucket of water to the people chopping cotton – the blacks. And my daddy would also be out there, chopping the grass out of the cotton too. And after a black person would pick up a dipper and take a dip of water on a really hot day, I put the dipper back in and go. And my dad picked up the bucket and the dipper and drank after that black person. Well, white people just didn’t do that – you have to understand those times. And my dad didn’t say, “Look son what I’m doing here.” He simply treated people equally and fair. And I guess that example and many other examples probably was a reason why when I graduated from law school, trying to make some money and buy some cotton land for myself, you know, people that came to see me to represent were my black neighbors and some poor white people. And I had to take on cases where they are like filling a suite to integrate the Alabama State Troopers and I probably wouldn’t have taken that on, unless I had those examples set by my parents.

Morris Dees, Esq. Civil Rights Attorney, explains how his parents taught him about civil rights and shares advice on how parents can teach their own kids


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Morris Dees, Esq.

Civil Rights Attorney

Morris Dees was born in 1936 in Shorter, Alabama, the son of cotton farmers. As a young boy he worked the fields with blacks, witnessing first-hand social and economic depravation and Jim Crow treatment at its worst. While at the University of Alabama Law School, he met Millard Fuller. The two formed a highly successful publishing company during their time in law school. After graduation, they moved the business to Montgomery, Alabama.  Fuller left the company in 1965 and later founded Habitat for Humanity. Mr. Dees continued the business and also began taking controversial civil rights cases. Mr. Dees sold his publishing company to a major national firm in 1970 and formed the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with Julian Bond and Joseph Levin. Early Center cases included integrating the Alabama State Troopers and desegregating the Montgomery YMCA. The Center, funded by donations from over 300,000 citizens across the nation, quickly grew into one of America’s most successful and innovative public interest law firms. In 1980, the Center founded the Intelligence Project in response to resurgence in organized racist activity. The project monitors hate groups and develops legal strategies for protecting citizens from violence-prone groups. A made-for-television movie about Mr. Dees aired on NBC; “Line of Fire” describes his successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan. It included the $7 million precedent-setting judgment against the United Klans of America on behalf of the mother of Michael Donald, a young black man lynched by the Klan in Mobile, Alabama. Wayne Rogers portrayed him in the feature film, “Ghosts of Mississippi,” about the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers. Other victories against hate groups include a $6 million judgment that bankrupted the Aryan Nations, a $12.5 million jury verdict against the California-based White Aryan Resistance for the death of a black student and a $26 million verdict against the Carolina Klan for burning black churches. Klansmen burned the Center offices in 1983. The arsonists were convicted but not before their leader plotted to kill Mr. Dees. More than thirty men have since been imprisoned for plots to harm him or destroy Center property.  This threat requires a high degree of security during public appearances. To promote acceptance and tolerance, the Center founded Teaching Tolerance in 1990. Over 80,000 schools use the project’s free videos and teaching materials and over 400,000 teachers receive the award winning Teaching Tolerance magazine. The Center has won two Oscars for its tolerance education films and received five Oscar nominations. Mr. Dees believes that it is important to teach tolerance in the classroom as well as fight hate in the courtroom. Mr. Dees has received numerous awards in conjunction with his work.  The U.S. Jaycees chose him as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America for his early business success.  Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named him Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987. In 2009, he was inducted into the Trial Lawyers’ Hall of Fame by the American Trial Lawyers’ Association. The American Bar Association honored him this year (2012) with the ABA Medal. Mr. Dees is the author of three books, A Lawyer's Journey, his autobiography; Hate on Trial; and Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat. He remains actively engaged in litigation. He and his wife live in Montgomery, Alabama. 

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