For 25 years Dees has played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement fighting repression, bigotry and racism through the courts. In 1971 he co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that maintains a pool of lawyers who specialize in lawsuits involving civil rights violations and racially motivated crimes.
In spite of death threats and assassination attempts, Dees and his Center have been successful in winning large judgements and setting legal precedents protecting minorities. For instance Dees led the historic $7 million judgement against the Ku Klux Klan for inciting violence in the case of the lynching of an African American man in Mobile, Alabama. In 1998, Dees won a $37.8 million judgement against the Klan in the burning of the Macedonia Baptist Church in South Carolina.
Also successful in business, Dees was a partner in a mail order business which was sold to the Times-Mirror Corporation. Dees has used his business ability for funding the Southern Poverty Law Center through direct mail appeals. He also was George McGovern’s campaign finance director in 1972, the first time a presidential campaign was financed through small gifts by mail.
A graduate of the University of Alabama Law School, Dees has published three books, including “Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat.” He has been recognized as “Trial Lawyer of the Year” by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. The National Education Association also awarded Dees with its Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award.
Dees has twice been portrayed in film – in the 1996 feature film “The Ghosts of Mississippi” (played by Wayne Rogers) and in the 1991 NBC TV movie “Line of Fire” (played by Corbin Bernson).