VIEW

WITCHFINDER

by Samuel Francis

The Strange Career of Morris Dees

Excerpt...

By 1994, Dees was reported to be hauling in a personal salary of $136,000 a year, but even liberals who supported his causes were starting to wonder.  In the same year they began to notice that, for all his fulminations against “white racism,” Dees’ Center employed no black attorneys and that only one of its eight department managers was black.  The Montgomery Advertiser reported that since the Center’s opening in 1971 it had hired 14 lawyers, only two of whom were black, and both left the organization unhappy.  One of the former black lawyers, Christine Lee, a Harvard Law School alumna who interned at the Center in 1989, told the Birmingham News in 1994, “I would definitely say that there was not a single black employee with whom I spoke who was happy to be working there.”  Dennis Sweet, also a former black staff attorney for the Center, said, “overall blacks were treated in a patronizing manner” at the offices.  Others reported hearing racial slurs and epithets used there.

The trial, conviction, and death sentence of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995, passed quietly this year, far more quietly than most reporters and some political leaders wanted.  The main reason for the calmness of the McVeigh proceedings was probably the utterly uninteresting mind, character, and personality of the defendant.  Unlike Charles Manson, who carved swastikas in his forehead and stared satanically at the public throughout his trial, McVeigh simply stared, and no swastikas were in sight.  Ever since his arrest 90 minutes after the bombing, McVeigh has said virtually nothing, and certainly nothing of any interest.  Even his brief quotation, before he was sentenced to death, from a fairly obscure Supreme Court dissenting opinion by Louis Brandeis, was too cryptic to excite much curiosity, and despite the heinousness of the crime for which he was convicted, it was almost impossible to sustain any public interest in the man who perpetrated the crime.

Nevertheless, some people did find the McVeigh trial interesting, though not because of the defendant, his deed, or the legal, moral, and political issues involved in it.  Almost at the beginning of McVeigh’s trial last March, an organization known as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, issued a publication that made McVeigh and his crime its centerpiece.

Entitled “Two Years After: The Patriot Movement since Oklahoma City,” the publication is the latest contribution to scholarship of the SPLC, which specializes in keeping track of what it calls “hate groups.”  Founded by lawyer Morris Dees in 1971, the SPLC has kept up a running account of the minutiae of the far right, and its most recent delvings into the world       that supposedly bred the bombing of the Murrah Building and the deaths of 168 people within it are fairly typical of its products.

The thesis of “Two Years After” is that the extreme right—including white racialist groups, tax protesters, Christian Identity churches, anti-gun-control activists, Confederate flag defenders, conspiracy theorists, and the “antigovernment insurgency”—is deeply involved in further plotting to carry out acts of terrorism similar to the Oklahoma City operation.  The publication, like most of what is produced by the SPLC, makes no distinctions among the various groups, individuals, and causes that it “exposes,” and in at least some cases it has managed to loop in some perfectly ordinary and law-abiding conservative organizations.

“Two Years After” enumerates no fewer than 858 distinct organizations in the United States that are said to be part of the “Patriot Movement,” a term that is never precisely defined or distinguished from Klan groups, white separatist groups like the Aryan Nations, neo-Nazi groups like the National Alliance, or groups like the various “citizens’ militias” that have sprouted in recent years.  It offers a listing of the 858 “Patriot” groups, though without describing the size, nature, beliefs, or activities of any of them.  In some cases, even the listing is meaningless, as with the entries under Ohio: “Unknown Group Name, Grove City” and “A Concerned Citizen, unspecified location.”  Groups like the “Aryan Republican Army” (also “unspecified location”) are lumped in with the “Keystone Second Amendment Foundation” (yet another “unspecified location”).  Whether as a research guide to the far right or as a directory of which groups not to invite to cosponsor your local community barbecue, “Two Years After” is worthless.

Some of the groups, locations specified or not, that the publication lists may actually exist; some might even have more than two or three members; and a few might actually be dangerous.  But according to the publication, which reproduces photographs of the bombed Murrah Building throughout the text, all of them are part of the vast and sinister “Patriot Movement,” whose goals were succinctly characterized by the SPLC in a media briefing for “Two Years After” on March 4, 1997:  “The Patriot Movement poses a continued danger to the country, including the threat of biochemical weapons.”  Though repeated again in the text, this claim is never substantiated, although a few pages later we learn that “The United States faces an increasing threat of biochemical terrorism—possibly from elements in the Patriot Movement—that would result in massive death and destruction.  Patriot publications are filled with stories about an impending biological or chemical attack on U.S. citizens by the federal government.”  This fear of the federal use of biochemical terrorism against Americans is interpreted by the SPLC to mean that the “Patriots” are planning to use such techniques themselves.

Not only are many of the extravagant and sensational claims of the publication never substantiated, but also a false unity is attributed to the “Patriot” movement.  Ideological as well as behavioral distinctions among different groups are ignored, the actions of individuals are ascribed to the “movement” as a whole, and organizations that are entirely law-abiding and essentially mainstream are lumped in with fragments of the Klan and neo-Nazis.  This is what has happened to conservative activist groups such as the U.S. Taxpayers Party and the Council of Conservative Citizens, which have been portrayed as part of the bomb-throwing “Patriot Movement.”  In the list of the 858 Patriot organizations throughout the country, local and state chapters of the USTP and the CCC, as well as of the John Birch Society, are included, with no differentiation among them, or between them and the more extreme fringe groups.  The USTP, founded by movement conservative Howard Phillips, is a political party that seeks repeal of the income tax, abolition of abortion, control of immigration, withdrawal from the United Nations, and a restoration of constitutional government.  The CCC, mainly a Southern-based organization of grassroots conservative activists but with chapters throughout the nation, is a hard-line conservative but hardly extreme group.  Both the USTP and the CCC tend to be Buchananite in their orientation, both are entirely law-abiding, and neither has ever been accused by any responsible source of harboring any sympathy for political violence or engaging in it.  The same is true of the John Birch Society.  One may agree or disagree with their versions of conservatism and their political views, but to place them in the same category as Timothy McVeigh or the National Alliance is clearly irresponsible.

Yet this style of scholarship is not untypical of the SPLC’s products, and the man behind the Center, Morris Dees, enjoys a long track record of similar distortions, as well as some amazingly high financial returns from it.  In 1988, the Progressive, hardly a magazine of the far right, reported that Dees was raking in some $5 million a year, “about twice as much as [the SPLC] manages to spend,” and USA Today reported in 1996 that the SPLC is “the nation’s richest civil rights organization” with assets of $68 million.  In 1993, the American Institute of Philanthropy ranked the SPLC as the fourth least-needy charity in the country.  “We’re interested in much more than poverty,” Dees told the Progressive, and his Center has the bank account to prove it.

Originally a direct-mail fundraiser by profession, Dees sold his marketing firm in 1967 for a tidy $6-7 million and then headed for the big time in civil rights.  With partner Joe Levin, he set up the SPLC in 1971, won the support of black Georgia civil rights activist Julian Bond, and embarked on the lucrative crusade in which he has been enlisted ever since.  He raised funds for George McGovern in 1972 and made use of the McGovern mailing list afterwards.  In 1975, he raised money for the defense of black convict Joan Little, accused of stabbing a jail guard in North Carolina, and an anti-death penalty project in Georgia with lawyer Millard Farmer.  The two men quarreled over money, and Dees wound up settling with Farmer for about $500,000.  “I was naive at first,” Farmer told the Progressive.  “I thought he was sincere.  I thought the Southern Poverty Law Center raised money to do good for poor people, not simply to accumulate wealth.”

Farmer’s characterization of the SPLC is not unique among Dees’ former associates (Dees says of Farmer, “He’s a fool”), but the former marketing wizard was now launched on a new career.  He was soon raising funds for Jimmy Carter, though Carter wasn’t far out enough for Dees, who says, “You can’t fire them up with a middle-of-the-road cause or candidate.  You’ve got to have someone who can arouse people.”  If Carter wasn’t useful for harvesting the cabbage, however, Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart were better, and Dees raised funds for both of them in the 1980’s. 

But it was still bush league.  It wasn’t until Dees discovered the Ku Klux Klan and the far right that he really started munching in the high-dollar pastures.  In 1980, Dees founded a research institute and newsletter called Klanwatch, which kept an eye on the Klan and related (and not a few unrelated) political groups.  Even some of his own associates argued that the Klan, at that time with a national membership of less than 10,000, wasn’t worth the trouble, but Dees understood where the money was buried.  “The money poured in,” reported Randall Williams, the original director of Klanwatch, who, like so many of Dees’ other associates, departed in disgruntlement.  “We developed a whole new donor base, anchored by wealthy Jewish contributors on the East and West Coasts, and they gave big bucks.”  But Dees soon found that if you start watching the Klan, the Klan might start watching back.  In 1983, Klansmen firebombed the Center’s offices in Montgomery, an attack that helped bring in even bigger bucks.

By 1994, Dees was reported to be hauling in a personal salary of $136,000 a year, but even liberals who supported his causes were starting to wonder.  In the same year they began to notice that, for all his fulminations against “white racism,” Dees’ Center employed no black attorneys and that only one of its eight department managers was black.  The Montgomery Advertiser reported that since the Center’s opening in 1971 it had hired 14 lawyers, only two of whom were black, and both left the organization unhappy.  One of the former black lawyers, Christine Lee, a Harvard Law School alumna who interned at the Center in 1989, told the Birmingham News in 1994, “I would definitely say that there was not a single black employee with whom I spoke who was happy to be working there.”  Dennis Sweet, also a former black staff attorney for the Center, said, “overall blacks were treated in a patronizing manner” at the offices.  Others reported hearing racial slurs and epithets used there.

Richard Cohen, the SPLC’s legal director, responded to such claims by saying that the Center did indeed have two black directors on its board and that 14 percent of its legal staff has been black.  Dees himself was perhaps less eager to placate those who were suggesting that the czar of antiracism was himself less than egalitarian.  “We don’t have black slots and white slots,” Dees told the Birmingham News.  “Probably the most discriminated people in America today are white men when it comes to jobs because there are more of those who had more education opportunities and who the test scores show are scoring better and on paper look more qualified.  That’s why you have so many reverse discrimination cases around.”

But even aside from his own views of blacks, Dees remains a controversial figure even on the left.  Not only has Millard Farmer challenged his good faith, along with former employees who insinuate racial bias, but so have civil rights workers in    other organizations.  “He’s a fraud who has milked a lot of very wonderful, well-intentioned people,” Stephen Bright told USA Today in 1996.  “If it’s got headlines, Morris is there.”  In 1994, Dees was instrumental in establishing a $700,000 Civil Rights Memorial outside his offices in Montgomery, but when civil rights veteran Ralph Abernathy showed up at the dedication ceremonies, Dees seized him by the arm, told him he wasn’t welcome, and ordered him to get off his property.  Abernathy’s autobiography, which recounted the irregular sexual life of Martin Luther King, Jr., had excited controversy among civil rights supporters, and Dees released a statement afterward saying that Abernathy’s attempt to put himself on the stage at the dedication ceremonies was “a ploy . . . a cheap effort to bring himself back into the fold of the civil rights community after selling out its most honored hero.”

Whatever the truth about the authenticity of his commitment to racial equality, there is no doubt that Morris Dees has made himself more than a nuisance to white racialists of the extreme right.  In 1987, he sued the United Klans of America on behalf of a black lynching victim and won $7 million in damages.  The Montgomery Advertiser series on Dees reported that only $52,000 of the money won actually went to the mother of the Klan’s victim; the rest wound up in the Center’s bank accounts.  His legal actions against white racialist Tom Metzger in 1990 virtually ruined Metzger and put his White Aryan Resistance out of business by winning $12.5 million in damages, and Dees has launched similar lawsuits against other activists.  The late Robert Matthews, the neo-Nazi who founded the secret terrorist group called “The Order” in the 1980’s and who carried out the murder of Colorado radio host Alan Berg and the armed robberies of several armored cars, reportedly placed Dees’ name next on the hit list after Berg’s; Matthews, who was killed in a gunfight with federal agents in 1984, wanted to kidnap Dees and skin him alive—a sentiment that may be shared, for different reasons, by some of Dees’ former employees and business associates.

But there’s no doubt also that Dees’ “research” is of questionable value.  Not only does he seem to specialize in scare sagas like the ones told in “Two Years After,” but he is often just plain wrong.  Last year during the black church burning hysteria, Dees’ Klanwatch listed five acts of arson against black churches in Kentucky in 1990, but it never mentioned that the supposedly “white racist” fires were in fact set by a black man.

Dees was one of the first to make capital out of the supposed rash of church burnings. At a news conference in Washington in April 1996, Dees announced that “Those [black] churches that have been burned in the South were certainly burned by racists.”  In fact, as subsequent investigations by the Associated Press, USA Today, and other mainstream newspapers showed, there was no wave of church arsons at black churches by white racists.  The AP reported that “A review of six years of federal, state and local data by the Associated Press found that arsons are up—at both black and white churches—but with only random links to racism.  Insurance industry officials say this year’s toll is within the range of what they would normally expect.”

Fewer than 20 of the 73 fires at black churches that the AP counted since 1995 can be blamed on “racism.”  Five states have suffered more fires at white churches than at black churches, and in only 12 to 18 fires is there any evidence of racial motivations.  In nine fires at black churches, black suspects have been named, while in six other church burnings, white churches were also targets of the arsonists.  USA Today found that 64 black churches in Southern states had been burned since January 1, 1995.  Of these, eight were torched by black suspects and one by a racially harmonious trio of two whites and one black.  Only three cases involved whites who might have had racial motives.  In Morris Dees’ own state of Alabama, the state Fire Marshal investigated all 15 fires at black churches in his state since 1990 and found no evidence of racial motives in any of them.  Earlier this year a federal task force appointed by President Clinton to investigate the church burnings concluded that white racists were responsible for such acts of arson in “only a handful of cases.”

Yet whatever the value of Morris Dees’ scholarship and whatever motivates him to sponsor it, he continues to bamboozle much of the media.  Reporters eager for a sensational story can always rely on the friendly experts at the SPLC to feed them uncorroborated details about the numberless white legions lurking in the cow pastures and munching sandwiches down at their klavern meetings, all the while plotting more “biochemical terrorism,” more church burnings, and more bombings of federal buildings.  One who fell for the “Two Years After” tale was Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times, who, in a column of June 20, 1997, titled “The Traitor Movement,” swallowed the whole whale.  Rosenthal regurgitated the “Two Years After” account almost verbatim, including the “858 groups” operating in “every state.”  Rosenthal used the SPLC propaganda to call for federal legal measures against the “hate groups,” “militias,” and the “Patriot Movement” as a whole.

Even the federal government pays a lot of attention to Morris Dees, though not perhaps in the way it should.  The Special Operations School Catalog of the U.S. Air Force for 1997 lists a course entitled “Dynamics of International Terrorism,” taught at the classified level of “Secret.”  One of the guest lecturers in the course was Joe Roy, the current editor of Klanwatch.  What exactly Mr. Roy instructed the flyboys on is not clear, but the course did include a section on the terrorist “Threat in the United States,” and since Klanwatch and the SPLC confine their researches on terrorism and extremism to these shores, it is likely that is what Mr. Roy lectured about.

And that, for all his apparent flaws both personal and professional, is Morris Dees’ real use.  As Randall Williams, the original director of Klanwatch, told the Progressive in 1988, “We were sharing information with the FBI, the police, undercover agents.  Instead of defending clients and victims, we were more of a super snoop outfit, an arm of law enforcement.”  Outfits like that run by Dees can carry out intelligence-gathering operations on law-abiding targets that government intelligence and law enforcement agencies do not have the funds, the time, the brains, or the authority to investigate; they can keep and disseminate the information they gather and develop it (or embroider it) in any way they please, and they can then convey that information (or disinformation) to government investigators and to students in government-sponsored seminars, leading them to believe in the existence of a far-reaching and dangerously violent underground of right-wingers that must be stopped before it kills again.

Dees’ own conception of the threat, which he unbosomed on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show this spring, makes clear what the real target of his crusade is:  “Fear of immigrants; fear that the government has grown too large, over-regulation, over-taxes, is insensitive to people; fear of the English language not being the mother language of the country—in other words, multiculturalism, fear of giving gay people more rights; fear of the laws that allow abortions.”  In Dees’ mind, and in the minds of those on the left and in the federal leviathan who listen to him and share his authoritarian and paranoid phobia of anyone who dissents from their agenda, those who share and act on these “fears” to try to stop immigration, halt abortions, end multiculturalism, promote economic liberty, and reduce taxes, even if they do so peacefully and democratically, are no less a danger than Timothy McVeigh and the fictional terrorists of The Turner Diaries.  As the new federal police state continues to evolve, men like Morris Dees and his associates can expect to serve as its demonologists-in-chief and head witchfinders, and to enjoy a bright and prosperous future advising, informing, and shaping the reign of terror that they want to unleash against the dissidents of the right.

(From the November 1997 edition of CHRONICLES: A MAGAZINE OF AMERICAN CULTURE)