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“A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story” by Morris Dees with Steve Fiffer American Bar Association Publishing, Chicago, Ill. 392 pages, $39 Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) founder Morris Dees is a man of contradictions, a gun-toting good ole boy with a twist. Part folksy preacher and part aggressive salesman, he has turned his political idealism into action, working to ensure that unequal opportunity and racial bigotry are quelled forever. Toward that end he has garnered fierce enemies, among them the United Klans of America, the Aryan Nations and the Ku Klux Klan. The facts are the stuff of detective novels and make “A Lawyer’s Journey,” Dee’s autobiography, an exceptionally compelling book, full of colorful details about courtroom battles, backroom deal-making and middle-of-the-night negotiations. Likewise, his brash arrogance — probably necessary to effectively challenge organized white supremacy — is evident throughout. It is by turns both thrilling and horrifying. Still, the book’s recollections are highly selective. Dees fails to mention that in 1986 the center’s entire legal staff quit over disagreements about SPLC’s focus. Nor does he divulge that the American Institute of Philanthropy, a national monitoring and oversight group, has consistently given the center its lowest rating because the SPLC’s asset reserves, $114 million in 2001, are considered excessive. “A Lawyer’s Journey” would have been a stronger book had it addressed these well-publicized facts. Nonetheless, as an inspiring memoir, “A Lawyer’s Journey” is a knockout. Dees offers just enough personal detail to make it clear that any white person can renounce intolerance and skin privilege. After all, many members of his immediate family were entrenched racists, freely assailing neighborhood “n—-r lovers” and “uppity” behavior. What’s more, from his birth in 1936 until the early 1960s, he never questioned segregation or the separate worlds of white and black. Vaguely aware of the civil rights movement, he was sympathetic, but essentially unmoved by it. That changed in September 1963, just days after the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. On the Sunday after the attack, Dees, a young lawyer and Sunday School superintendent, asked fellow parishioners at the Pike Road Baptist Church in Mount Meigs — whites all — to pray for the four girls who had been killed in the blast. They refused. Years later, a still-incredulous Dees recalls the incident: “Just a silent prayer, an act consistent with Christian teachings, praying for the souls of other Christians. Children. And yet my good friends and neighbors could not free themselves from the slavery of the Southern tradition and, forgetting about color, do the Christian thing,” he writes. The event was a turning point. Slowly, Dees began to add explicitly political cases to his legal repertoire. A 1969 challenge to Auburn University’s decision to keep Vietnam War opponent William Sloane Coffin from addressing students on campus put Dees in the forefront of the free-speech movement. It was also his introduction to white enmity; after winning the case, he returned to his offices to find the moniker “KKK” carved into the building’s plaster walls. Furious but unbowed, he decided to take another potentially volatile case, this time representing two black boys who had been refused admittance to a Montgomery YMCA summer camp. “The idea of white children and black children in the same water at the same time, particularly half-naked black boys and white girls, stirred long-standing sexual taboos and was more terrifying to white folks than any mixing that might take place fully clothed,” Dees explains. While tempers on both sides flared, Dees investigated claims that private organizations like the “Y” were exempt from federal anti-discrimination standards. What he found, after perusing reams of paper, was staggering. “The smoking gun,” he writes, “was a 1958 document describing the City Recreation-YMCA Coordinating Committee.” The memo allowed Dees to argue, successfully, that the “Y” was a quasi-governmental agency, running athletic, craft and social activities at the city’s behest. Other human rights suits followed: Parducci v. Rutland challenged the firing of a Montgomery teacher for assigning Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Welcome to the Monkey House.” Frontero v. Laird forced the Department of Defense to give servicewomen the same benefits as servicemen . Cook v. Advertiser Company embarrassed a Montgomery newspaper into publishing the wedding announcements of black couples. By 1971, Dees and law partner Joe Levin Jr. decided to form the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thirty-one years later, the center remains a stalwart litigator and reliable advocate of racial justice. Their cases have run the gamut: from the defense of Joan Little, a North Carolina prisoner accused of murdering her jailer, to the defense of Vietnamese fishermen who were being harassed and intimidated by Klansmen in Galveston Bay, Texas. Dees has challenged the White Patriot Party (WPP) and has gone to court to shutter the paramilitary training camps used by the party to train new recruits. He has exposed conspiracies to kill both civil rights activists and regular citizens and has extracted huge sums — $7 million in one case — as reparations for the injured. But the victories have taken their toll. The Southern Poverty Law Center was nearly destroyed by arson in 1983, and Dees has received a slew of death threats. His home has been invaded and his privacy and personal life have been violated. Yet the 66-year-old lawyer persists. In the last decade he has fought skinheads in Oregon and the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina. He has worked to rid Alabama of chain gangs and continues, through the SPLC’s Klanwatch, to monitor more than 600 hate groups around the country. Although he has incurred the ire of some civil rights activists for sharing information with law enforcement, he continues to provide data to the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, helping them to prosecute anti-Semites, gay-bashers and white supremacists. Controversial, audacious and defiant, he is guided by conscience and propelled by conviction. His dedication is heartfelt and his passion contagious. “A Lawyer’s Journey” is a gripping read and an epic tale of one man’s efforts to repair the world. His example is sure to both awe and exhilarate. Eleanor J. Bader is a frequent contributor to In These Times, Library Journal and The Progressive. According to the ABA Web site, “ A Lawyer’s Journey” is “the first in a new series of books published by the American Bar Association about lawyers who are visionaries, who inspire, or who are role models … “

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