Civil rights attorney calls for diversity and inclusion to make America great
Morris Dees has a virtue he wishes he could share with a country he continues to see as divided. During a lecture at The Ohio State University Wednesday night, the famed civil rights attorney and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center told a story about a memorable moment in his career.
Dees led a wrongful death lawsuit against the United Klans of America for their role in the lynching death of Michael McDonald in 1981. Dees represented Beulah Mae McDonald, mother of the young man murdered by Klan members.
McDonald met one of the men responsible for the death of her son, and he asked for her forgiveness. She granted it. Dees was moved by her compassion – he said he wished he could have packaged that moment.
“That’s the solution. To be willing to forgive people who, in some way, cause you in small ways and big ways to not like them,” Dees said.
Forgiveness and finding common ground were themes of his speech for the 19th Annual President and Provost’s Diversity Lecture and Cultural Arts Series. His appearance at the Fawcett Center was supported by the university Division of Police, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and Moritz College of Law.
President Michael V. Drake said Dee’s message of equality and inclusivity was critical to Ohio State as a leader in higher education.
“The phrase inclusive excellence is really important to us. We want to be excellent in who we recognize. We want to be celebrated based on who we include,” Drake said. “We want to be broadly inclusive.”
Dees said the key to inclusivity is to reach out to people who are different. He said it may make you uncomfortable, but it’s important for a greater understanding.
“We as a group of people, striving for diversity, have to consider how we can make this nation a great country,” he said.
Dees told a story of defending Vietnamese fishermen in Texas who had fled their home country to escape violence and began working to build a better life in America. When their work started to cut into the profits of white fishermen in the area, the Ku Klux Klan began harassing them.
Dees went to court on behalf of the Vietnamese Fisherman’s Association and won an injunction against the Klan. State troopers stood on the docks at the start of fishing season to protect the immigrant fishermen.
“Meeting those immigrants changed my life,” Dees said.
They faced threats of violence as their lawsuit proceeded, but they persisted. He also said their work ethic and contribution to the community ultimately made the area a better place.
“I could see them finding a place at America’s table,” Dees said.
Though the current political environment may look to some like a step back from progress, Dees noted the work toward inclusivity, equality and, ultimately, forgiveness never ends.
“The march for justice continues. It didn’t end with Dr. King or some of the great civil rights leaders. It continues.”