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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Morris Dees at Fountain Street Church April 1

Morris Dees has spent the better part of his professional life illuminating the dark issues hate groups in this country espouse and act upon. When the founding member of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama speaks, like he did at the Grand Rapids Community College Diversity Lecture Series on April 1, he articulates in an authoritative way few of his peers match.

Speaking in front of a mostly middle-age mainstream audience not quite filling Fountain Street Church, Dees gave a compelling and comprehensive update on hate groups operating in the United States today. Dees described first-hand accounts of these groups--with a glimpse into their future--and speculated on what factors may have given rise to recent activity.

“The issues that loom for this country--a change in political power and the change in how we cut the economic pie--will present an enormous problem for this nation.”

Dees says the real issue is this: America is changing—sooner rather than later.

“In 1950 non-whites made up 20 percent of the population; this year it will be around 39 percent. By 2042 census takers and demographers tell us that people like myself and many of you here tonight will be in a minority,” Dees said.

He says memberships in most hate groups have risen significantly in the past two years; this includes a new group which targets Latino immigrants. But he also cautions about hateful venom spewed by both mainstream media commentators and members of the Tea Party movement.

Although security was expected to be tight for Dees' appearance due to near constant death threats, absent were walk-through metal detectors upon entering. Just before the presentation was to begin a man heard raising his voice was seen being quickly escorted out of the church by GRCC campus police.

After some welcoming remarks by Bob Woodrick, benefactor for the evening's discussion, Dees—a former preacher himself--took to the podium.

"I accept those kind words of praise for all the people who have worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center," Dees began.

As he would throughout his 50 minute talk Dees infused his lecture with the words and examples of civil rights icon Martin Luther King.

“Dr. King faced rivals and many in his own race who had no vision, politicians with no backbone, and finally in Memphis a terrorist with no conscience," said Dees of the many challenges Dr. King experienced during his short lifetime.

"However in the forty years since Dr. King we as a country have taken three steps forward and two steps back in regards to the civil rights movement," Dees said.

"There has been an enormous backlash since because of the election of Barack Obama. That’s really the best way I know how to put it."

Speaking with a soft-spoken southern accent, Dees contends there are many factors at work on this issue.

“Maybe this backlash is because we have elected an African-American president. Maybe it’s because of the economy that we’re going through now which is the worst in my lifetime and the lifetime of most of you here. Or it could be a backlash because of the enormous Latino migration in this nation. But there’s been an extreme reaction since the election of President Obama in our country."

By this time the already attentive crowd grew more silent with each word.

"There are approximately 950 certified hate groups operating today--Ku Klux Klan, Skinheads and others,” Dees said.

“That’s a big increase in the number before Obama starting running for office. But more alarming is the increase in what we at the Southern Poverty Law Center call militia groups in our country; I won’t call them hate groups--they’re not necessarily hate groups. They are those groups who feel it’s necessary to arm themselves in order to protect themselves against our government."

As expected he made a direct reference to the Hutaree militia in southeastern Michigan whose members were arrested less than a week earlier.

“We know here in Michigan, recently, eight members of one these groups were arrested,” Dees said.

“This is a group I guess you’d have to qualify as an absolute hate group because they hate Jews. They felt the Jews were controlling our country and that we were going to have a One World Government, and they wanted to start a war to end that. They were going to kill a police officer and then blow up those who came to the funeral. Now whether they had the ability to carry this out who knows.”

“But there’s been a 244 percent increase in militia groups in the last 12 months alone. Something’s happened in this country in the last year or two to cause an enormous increase in these groups,” Dees cautioned.

Dees went on to describe the methodology of the newly described hate group.

“And then we have about a 50 percent increase in what we call ‘nativeist’ groups. These are anti-Latino groups and in many cases create acts of violence against Latinos, whether they’re documented or not in this country. All told there are about 1850 militia, hate, and ‘nativeist’ groups—or just plan Klan groups. That is a 44 percent increase in just one year alone. You add to that the whole Tea Party Movement that we have going on, and I’m sure exactly what it is and what it will amount to or what percentage of our people this represents. But there are some really ill-tempered and hateful things coming out of the mouths of these people. And on top of that we have commentators like Glenn Beck and other who say things like 'Obama hates white people.' I don’t know where this comes from but Beck has a big audience—a very big audience. Add to that the dozens of other commentators who 24/7 spout intolerance in the worst sort of way.”

The current climate in Washington did not escape scrutiny.

“Then you end up with-- I’m not sure it’s totally the reason for the increase--a Congress in absolute gridlock. We tried to pass a healthcare bill that just got through by the skin of its teeth and it was opposed 100 percent by the Republican Party. That’s not the Republican Party I knew growing up when you had people in it like Richard Nixon, who proposed a much more comprehensive health care bill than was passed by this last Congress,” Dees said.

While listening to these stories it may seem easy to lose hope in fellow man. But Morris Dees left time to once again quote Dr. King, referring to his famous speech at the Washington Mall and the role of faith in a better America.

“I don’t mean to put words in this great American’s mouth. But if Dr. King were here today he would have to include the barrios, the reservations, the poor, and perhaps even the uninsured,” as groups still in need of equality.

Dees spoke of the SPLC, an organization which pioneered innovative legal strategies—with some surprising allies along the way--to bankrupt contemptible groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations.

“I think the health care bill is a precursor to the problems we see today because the bill is about how we’re going to allocate cash resources in the future. You might say in many ways this is a class issue.”

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