‘Not in my town’ Southern Poverty Law Center cofounder speaks at UMKC

Samuel Towns

Morris Dees, the co-founder of Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a group that targets racist and discriminatory organizations, spoke in Peirson Auditorium on Nov. 17.

Dees’ speech, which is part of the Rosa Parks Keynote Address sponsored by the UMKC Division of Diversity, Access & Equity, could be considered valiant by some audiences.

Along with Martin Luther King Jr. and many other activists, Rosa Parks brought about the change that has become today’s modern civil rights movement.

Dees graduated from the University of Alabama School Of Law and pursued a career in law.

Returning to Alabama, he opened a law office, which he would later sell. He used the sale’s revenue to found the Southern Poverty Law Center SPLC.

In addition to relating Parks’ touching story, he shared with the crowd other stories of triumph over oppression.

Dees spoke of a battle he fought and won against the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Vietnamese fishermen were fishing, and as members of the KKK kept harassing them, even threatening their lives if they continued to fish in the waters they occupied.

Dees came to know these Vietnamese fishermen, and befriended many of them. He understood that what the KKK was doing was something intolerable, so he took legal action to end their harassment.

Dees proved his worth to the fishermen, and they were granted government protection. Dees spoke of the overwhelming feeling he had when watching the Vietnamese fishing boats sail out into the foggy waters, and of the smiles on the faces of those fishermen as they cast their lines.

Dees said, addressing the entire auditorium, at that moment, he not only felt proud to be a lawyer, but proud to be an American.

Another story was that of a young Jewish boy living in a predominately Christian community.

The boy placed a menorah in his front window looking out onto the street.

Like clockwork the boy would light another candle for every day of Hanukkah. Somebody in the neighborhood didn’t care for the menorah and thought he’d voice his own opinion by throwing a brick through the boy’s window, knocking over his menorah.

As a reaction, a local barbershop owner changed the sign outside his shop from “$5 a haircut” to simply saying “Not in my town.”

With nearly the whole town supporting the boy, every shop in town and many houses as well, put up cardboard cutouts of menorahs in their front windows.

The Jewish boy was riding with his parents through town amazed at all of the menorahs, smiling from ear to ear. He turned to his parents, saying “I didn’t know there were so many Jews in our neighborhood!”

“They’re not Jews, they’re our friends,” the boy’s parents said.

For more information about Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law center, visit www.splcenter.org

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