by Bill Archambeault
Morris Dees, a groundbreaking civil rights attorney and
co-founder/chief trial attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center
in Alabama, delivered a powerful speech to nearly 500 people at the
Massachusetts Bar Association's Gala Dinner on March 11. Sen.
Cynthia Stone Creem, co-chair of the Joint Committee on the
Judiciary, was honored as the Legislator of the Year.
MBA President Valerie A. Yarashus welcomed the audience at the
Westin Copley Place hotel, noting that the MBA will be entering its
centennial celebration, starting with the 2010-11 association
"About 100 years ago, [the founders of the MBA] banded together
with a mission of forming an organization that all lawyers could
call home," she said. "They were wise about many things, and our
challenge is to pick up where they began. We do it together because
together, we are stronger than we are alone."
Creem credits MBA for legislative efforts
Yarashus praised Creem's "unfailing commitment" to the judiciary
and other concerns of the legal profession.
"Sen. Creem is straightforward and straight-talking," she
Creem said she was honored to share a stage with Dees, calling
the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., "a beacon of
"We in Massachusetts are no strangers to the fight for civil
rights," Creem said, noting the state's 2003 landmark Goodridge
v. Dept. of Public Health decision adopting same-sex
"I'm proud to have taken part in that successful effort," she
said, noting that she has also co-sponsored legislation protecting
transgender people. But Massachusetts has important work to do
reforming its criminal sentencing and background check laws, she
"It will shock few in this room to know that the burdens of the
CORI system fall most heavily on people of color," she said,
thanking the MBA and Past President David W. White for their
efforts in leading the push for sentencing reform, which supporters
describe as an unfinished job.
"We would not have been able to advance even this far had it not
been for the Mass. Bar," she said. "I know the Mass. Bar will
continue to fight for these important causes."
On a personal note, Creem told the audience that she developed
her public speaking fortitude when she led the MBA's Family Law
Section in the late 1990s and had to defend the section's positions
at the House of Delegates.
"I would not be the advocate I am today if not for that
experience," she said. She also reminded members to fight for
adequate legal services funding.
"When we underfund legal services," Creem said, "we undermine
the legal system's ability to carry out justice."
Dees relates economic, moral victory in landmark
MBA Vice President Douglas K. Sheff introduced Dees, calling him
"an American icon" and lauding his accomplishments in advancing
civil rights despite threats against his life that continue today.
Dees led the way in striking back at organizations like the Ku Klux
Klan by suing them in civil court and forcing them to pay millions
to their victims, including forfeiting their property to cover the
"For all his successes, Morris Dees has never been able to enjoy
his life," Sheff said, noting that 30 people have been imprisoned
for threatening Dees' life. "He has always known that the struggle
is never over, that the stakes always get higher."
Dees noted his Massachusetts ties, calling MBA Past President
Leo V. Boyle, a fellow member of the American Association for
Justice, one of his heroes. Dees also noted that he served as the
national finance director for Sen. Ted Kennedy's presidential
Dees started his keynote speech decrying the efforts of Keep
America Safe, an organization founded by Liz Cheney, which recently
denounced the efforts of U.S. Justice Department lawyers who had
previously represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The attack on
lawyers by Keep America Safe and Cheney elicited a harsh rebuke
from many quarters, including conservative legal figures like
Kenneth Starr, dean of Pepperdine University School of Law, who was
recently named president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
"Thank goodness that there have been some conservative lawyers
who came to the defense of the Justice Department lawyers," Dees
said, noting the important role that lawyers play in providing
public villains a fair trial. He reminded the audience that John
Adams agreed to represent - and successfully defended - British
soldiers after the Boston Massacre.
"He helped ensure that the rule of law and a jury would govern,"
Dees cited Clarence Darrow as an important role model, noting
one case in which Darrow defended labor union organizers in
Wisconsin by convincing the jury that the case was about fighting
tyranny and oppression.
"He was able to lift the jury above the simple facts of this
case and allow them to make a decision that they could be proud of
the rest of their lives," Dees said.
Dees also recalled representing the mother of Michael Donald, a
19-year-old black man who was lynched in 1981 by two white men,
Henry Hays and James Knowles. After the two were convicted, Dees
convinced Knowles to testify against the United Klans of America
when the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a civil case against
the organization. In winning a $7 million judgment, the Klan was
forced to turn over the deed of its national headquarters to
Donald's mother, who sold the property and bought a house.
At the civil trial, Knowles asked Donald's mother if she could
ever forgive him for what he'd done to her son.
"If I try 100 more cases, I'll never have a moment like that
again," Dees told a rapt audience. "She said, 'Son, I already
have.' What she said was a greater verdict than the $7 million
Dees ended his speech by quoting Rev. Martin Luther King's
famous citation of a Bible passage, telling the Massachusetts
lawyers in the room, "I know you will not be satisfied until
justice rolls down like water."