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Civil rights litigator Morris Dees speaks to DU students

Morris Dees, a champion litigator for the civil rights movement, spoke at the University of Denver Jan. 17. Photo: Ce Shi

For students who may have doubted their pursuit of degrees in law and social work, for students who doubted that one person can make a difference, for students who doubted their own resolve, Morris Dees had a message.

Dees, a champion litigator for the civil rights movement, spoke at the University of Denver Jan. 17. He told some 400 students from DU and area high schools to persevere and to know that no matter the profession they choose, if they strive for excellence, they can make a tremendous difference.

“I grew up in a time when the South was very segregated, and there wasn’t much most of us could do about it,” he said. “I didn’t much question the way things were; it was just a way of life.”

But an elementary school teacher in his Alabama hometown challenged Dees to think differently and to respect people of all races. Armed with that spark from a small-town teacher, Dees went on to rise up from his job picking cotton in rural fields to become one of the best-known civil rights lawyers in American history.

Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, and through his work as a torts lawyer he successfully sued branches of hate groups such as the Aryan Brotherhood and the Ku Klux Klan into bankruptcy and out of existence. He successfully sued to integrate the Montgomery, Ala., YMCA and other recreational facilities. He battled in Texas courts for the rights of Vietnamese shrimpers, and he fought for prisoners’ rights and the rights of women.

“America, I’ve learned from representing these people, is great because of our diversity, not despite it,” Dees said. “America is a nation of laws that protect the minority from the majority, if the majority is breaking the law.”

Students, faculty and staff packed the main hall at the Sturm College of Law for Dees’ lecture, which was sponsored jointly by the law school and the Graduate School of Social Work. Joining DU students was a contingent of area high school students taking part in the law school’s Juniors and Seniors Day. The one-day event supports high school students interested in college and explains how college can be a pathway to law school.

Dees led the students through a history lesson on how lawyers have historically protected and uplifted every wave of newcomers to this country.

Starting with American revolutionaries, Dees described how attorney John Adams represented those seeking to avoid British taxes as well as British soldiers sent to hold down the revolution, believing the law is there to serve all people. Dees went on to speak about the work of legal champions who stood up for Irish and Chinese immigrants, and later African-Americans.

The struggle for justice, he said, is far from over. Today’s students will have work to do, protecting the rights of Hispanic immigrants and low-income workers.

“Whether you’re in law, in business, in social work,” Dees said, “it’s always about a simple thing called justice.”



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