I’ve always admired Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). For decades, he has waged trench warfare to advance human dignity and racial equality in the U.S. I wish more Americans of all ages knew his name and his legacy instead of the shallow celebrities and athletes they now revere as heroes.
Dees grew up in the segregated South and felt compelled to do his part to resist and unravel Jim Crow. Here’s a fun factoid I learned today from Kory Ward, the tour guide at the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center: Dees baked cookies to raise the funds needed to start SPLC. Now, who doesn’t unconditionally love a man who can bake?
Dees and the SPLC gained national reknown after winning a discrimination lawsuit against the Montgomery YMCA, which refused to allow two black boys to go to their summer camp. They almost didn’t have a case because the Civil Rights Act didn’t apply to private institutions, only public accommodations. But someone tipped Dees off to the fact that the Y was quietly receiving city and state funding to support its work. Public funding = public accommodation. The plaintiffs were awarded $50,000 each, but refused the money and instead insisted that more YMCAs be built and that they be open to anyone.
The Civil Rights Memorial Center honors 40 individuals who became martyrs in the movement. The Center includes an interactive exhibit, a powerful monument designed by Maya Lin (Vietnam Wall), and a stunning video.
Among the better known victims of racial violence whose story is recounted here is Emmett Till, the 14-year old black boy who was tortured and killed in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When his body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, his mom identified his corpse and insisted on an open casket so that all of America would be forced to deal with the horror of his disfigured face. “I wanted the whole world to see what I had seen. People had to face my son and face themselves.” A mother’s act of tremendous courage.
Herbert Lee was also heroically brave. The video said he could barely write his own name, but owned a farm in the misnamed Mississippi town of Liberty. The majority of residents there were black, but none could vote. When Freedom Summer organizers like Bob Moses came to the South to register voters, Lee acted as a surrogate dad who escorted the activists around as they tried to persuade African Americans to claim and exercise their right to vote. For this act of citizenship, Lee was shot and killed by his white neighbor.
Viola Liuzzo was a white Detroit mother of five who found a home in the civil rights movement. She, too, drove activists around to register voters. One night, Klansmen followed her car. She tried to get away, fearfully speeding up to 100 miles a hour. She met her fate at the end of a Klan rifle. She was the first white woman to die in the movement.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Emmett Till, but do you know the names of Herbert Lee and Viola Liuzzo? Isn’t it time that all Americans knew the names and stories of the revolutionaries who died to protect and defend the nation’s Constitution and creed?
These were violent times. The original SPLC offices were firebombed. Fortunately no one got hurt, but this melted clock shows just how destructive heat of racial hatred. Undeterred, SPLC opened offices in a new building the very next day. The work must go on.
There is no doubt that white supremacists were and are engaged in domestic terrorism, posing a great threat to peace and national security.
SPLC is protected by armed guards 24-7. The Center has to pay for its own security. Hate groups are still rampant in the U.S. In fact, the SPLC has found a nearly 250% increase in hate group membership/activity since President Obama came into office. SPLC tracks more than 2000 hate groups in the U.S., from the Klan and neo-Nazis to the so-called “New Black Panthers” and Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist “church.” The SPLC was one of the first national civil rights groups to recognize the danger of hate no matter who was the target or the perpetrator.
The Civil Rights Memorial Center features this quote by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:
The lesson of SPLC and the Civil Rights Memorial is that we cannot be Switzerlands in the face of fascism. We cannot be silent when we witness injustice. The underdogs of the world need allies. A passive life is not worth living. Each of us is called upon to do our part to make our world, our country, our communities, a more just and loving place for all.
That’s what the civil rights leaders and foot soldiers understood. They were answering the call. Will you?
Julie Drizin, Silver Spring