Activist speaks on fairness and justice
Maybe it was Morris Dees’s Southern drawl. Or maybe it was the stories of struggle for acceptance and tolerance in America.
Whatever the reason, Dees had the crowed that packed Hendricks Chapel on its feet applauding as he finished.
Dees, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, spoke as part of the University Lecture Series aimed at bringing individuals of exceptional accomplishment to SU.
He opened his speech with a story about how the chapel reminded him of his days growing up in southern Alabama attending a Baptist church.
‘Every morning, we raised the flag up to the top of the pole,’ Dees said. ‘We placed our hands on our hearts. And I was proud to be an American.’
The one phrase that stuck out for him was ‘one nation, with liberty and justice for all.’
‘And I believe in that – liberty and justice for all,’ he said.
True to this belief, Dees has dedicated his career to civil rights lawsuits.
His more notable cases include a $12.5 million verdict for the family of an Ethiopian man murdered in Oregon in 1990 and a $37.8 million verdict against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for burning the Macedonia Baptist Church in South Carolina in 1998. More recently, he won a 2003 case to have the Ten Commandments removed from the Alabama Supreme Court.
Dees also works with Teaching Tolerance, a program designed for K-12 students. Eighty-thousand schools currently use Teaching Tolerance to promote equality and respect in the classroom and beyond.
The future, Dees said, depends on what we make it.
‘America now finds itself in two wars,’ Dees said. ‘One is in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we are trying to place values on people who may not agree with America’s. And the other is in America, where we are trying to decide: Whose America is this?”
The only way to win these wars, Dees said, is to return to the core values of fairness and justice.
‘If we are to maintain a participatory government, if the ideals America was founded on do not last, we will not survive as a nation,’ he said.
As he addressed the students, he spoke of how the nation continues to change rapidly.
‘Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our nation’s history,’ he said. ‘America will only be here if you students – the country’s future – maintain justice and fairness.’
He alluded to the teaching of Martin Luther King Jr. and told stories of hate crimes against Vietnamese fishermen and a Jewish family.
‘This bias, it’s a cancer in America,’ Dees said.
But tolerance is growing as education of acceptance grows, he added.
‘When I looked around to see what America was thinking, all over this country, people were saying ‘We’re better than this’ and ‘We aren’t like that,” Dees said. ‘All over this country, people are reaching out to victims and joining together.’
The long-term progress of this country is moving toward solving these issues of intolerance, he said.
‘When your careers are ending,’ Dees said to the students, ‘one of you will write the story of America’s greatest generation because you will not be satisfied until justice flows down those waters.’
With the conclusion of his speech, ‘A Passion for Justice,’ the crowd erupted in applause, echoing the approval of students.
Freshman architecture major Rob Lubas said along with being a very interesting storyteller, Dees made strong points.
‘He’s still so relevant to our country, and still causing such a change,’ Lubas said, referring specifically to the recent Ten Commandments case.
Freshman architecture major Dylan Smith agreed.
‘It was great to have an opportunity to hear someone with such an impact on American history,’ he said.
Liz Young, a sophomore French major, attended the speech because she was intrigued with the work Dees has done.
‘After college, I’ll never get the opportunity to hear speeches like this for free, so I’m taking advantage while I’m here,’ she said.
The next speaker in the University Lecture is Bruce Fowle, an architect who will discuss ‘The SU campus today and tomorrow,’ Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Hendricks Chapel.
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