Civil rights pioneer Morris Dees delivers inspirational speech: Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem honored with Legislator of the Year Award

Issue April 2010

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 year.

"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 said.

Creem said she was honored to share a stage with Dees, calling the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., "a beacon of justice."

"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 marriage.

"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 said.

"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 case

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 judgments.

"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 campaign.

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 said.

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 judgment."

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."