Founder and leader Morris Seligman Dees has been central to SPLC’s success from 1971 to the present day. The son of an Alabama farmer (b. December 16, 1936, in Shorter, Alabama), Dees has been energetic and enterprising from an early age. Ascribing his best lessons in sales to his boyhood exposure to Baptist preachers (“I learned everything I know about hustling from the Baptist Church,” Dees has said. “Spending Sundays on those hard benches listening to the preacher pitch salvation — why, it was like getting a Ph.D. in selling”).
Dees amassed a fortune from direct marketing while still at the University of Alabama law school. The specifics on Dees’s embrace of left-liberal politics and subsequent decision to advance the African-American civil rights movement through SPLC are uncertain; Dees himself has cast skepticism on the significance of an oft-cited epiphany he earlier claimed to have experienced in 1969.
Whatever psychological, sociological, or other motives inspired Dees’s alleged conversion, his prodigious abilities in selling and promoting enabled him to make the SPLC a going concern — the policies and assets of which he seems to firmly control through well-chosen proxies — from its foundation. While heading SPLC and actively leading its legal work in the 1970s and `80s, Dees also raised millions for Democratic presidential candidates George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and Gary Hart, sometimes taking mailing lists of Democratic prospects in payment for his services.
Morris Dees’s talents and character have played the key role in the development of the Center from 1) a civil-rights law firm to 2) a public relations–savvy crusader against the Klan to 3) its present incarnation as a watchdog whose bark and bite threaten free discussion of America’s future as a nation grappling with racial and immigration problems. Dees’s ability to enlist talent and to attract money from the radical fringe, coupled with his considerable business skills, has resulted in an organization that effectively advances a leftist agenda utilizing state-of-the-art fundraising and publicity methods. Nearly as decisive has been his stated desire for a “blend of exciting [as well as] socially significant cases,” which surely played a role in the de-emphasizing of the humdrum affirmative action suits the Center began with.
SPLC’s often criticized lack of scruples in its legal tactics (Dees himself was arrested for suborning perjury in the 1970s); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Little
in smearing and spying on its opponents; and above all in its fundraising techniques, likely reflect traits of its founder, whom Millard Farmer, a former SPLC attorney, likened to notorious televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, with the proviso that he wished not to insult the Bakkers by the comparison.
Dees has weathered numerous attacks from left and right accusing him of opportunism, greed, and various sexual quirks (alleged by a former wife during divorce proceedings). Possibly his embrace of the civil rights agenda and left-liberal politics is the result of social resentments over his allegedly humble beginnings as the son of a sharecropper. Perhaps his behavior and motives are better explained by a craving to be famous, like his hero, early twentieth century radical lawyer Clarence Darrow, a desire colored by what seems to be a considerable personal vanity.
Whatever the determinants of his character and motives, whatever his private peccadilloes, Dees has so far proved resilient to criticism.