Posts Tagged ‘Michael Donald’

SPLC — Morris Dees and the Klan

April 2, 2019

The recent sexual harassment and racial discrimination scandals rocking the Southern Poverty Law Center have brought an oft-told legend about SPLC founder Morris Dees back into the spotlight, but there is more to the tale than the carefully polished version put forth by the Center’s public relations office.

That legend recounts how Morris Dees won a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America in 1987, for the brutal murder of a young Black man, 19-year-old Michael Donald, bankrupting the UKA and essentially “bringing the Klan to its knees.” The money from that settlement allowed Michael’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, to move out of public housing and buy her own home.

These facts are all accurate, but they gloss over a much larger story of greed, revenge and exploitation that requires a little background history to fully understand. Ironically, the best source for that history comes from none other than that “Modern Day Atticus Finch,” Morris Dees, himself.

In 1961, Morris Dees was a fledgling lawyer, struggling to establish a law practice in his hometown of Montgomery, AL. Dees’ law and business partner at the time was his fellow law school chum Millard Fuller. Dees writes in his 1991 autobiography, A Season for Justice, that it was tough for two novice lawyers to compete with older, more established law firms in the city, as might be expected.

On May 20, 1961, a Greyhound bus carrying Black and White Freedom Riders was attacked at the Montgomery bus depot by what Time magazine described as “An idiot, club-swinging mob of about 100…” One of the idiots leading the mob was one Claude Henley, a local used car salesman and known Klansman.

Thanks to photos appearing in Life magazine (see pages 22-25 here ), Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s Department of Justice was able to identify Henley and brought federal civil rights violation charges against him.

Henley

Claude Henley kicking a news reporter on May 20, 1961

With an arraignment in federal court hanging over his head, Henley went to visit his old friend Morris Dees at his law office. Dees says that he was on the verge of agreeing to represent the Klan thug for $500 dollars until Henley mentioned that another lawyer had wanted $15,000 to take the case. Dees seized the moment and said he would do the job for “only” $5,000.

(It should be mentioned that in 1961, $5,000 dollars was the median income for a family of four. To put it in perspective, that sum would be worth over $42,000 in 2019 dollars.)

Dees wrote in his autobiography, “Later, when Claude Henley asked me to defend him, I didn’t think twice,” (Season, p. 84). In fact, Dees believed the violent photos of Henley in Life magazine would work in his favor as it would establish that his old friend was outside the bus station attacking reporters and not Freedom Riders.

Long story short, Dees went to bat for Henley and in 1962 the Klan thug walked out of RFK’s federal courthouse scot-free. Henley’s victims got nothing, least of all justice, but Morris Dees collected his $5,000 fee all the same.

Dees’ law partner, Millard Fuller, who later went on to found Habitat for Humanity, wrote in his autobiography that the Dees’ fee was paid by the Klan. Arguably, the Klan money was possibly the largest legal fee Morris Dees ever collected, as by 1962 he and Fuller had pretty much shuttered the law office to concentrate on their thriving mail order business. Fuller wrote that by 1964 their company bookkeeper informed the partners that they were worth a million dollars each.

Fast forward a few years, Dees and Fuller had parted ways by 1966 and Dees had sold the mail order business in 1969 for $6 million, (over $41 million in 2019 dollars), and by 1971 had founded the Southern Poverty Law Center with a 28-year-old lawyer named Joe Levin.

The SPLC spent the first decade of its existence taking on real civil rights cases and defending death row inmates, the exact kind of thankless, low-profile “poverty law” work for which the organization was founded, and which, to a lesser extent, it still practices today. Early in the 1980s, however, Morris Dees discovered that there was a lot of money to be made by taking on the Ku Klux Klan.

“The money poured in,” according to Randall Williams, a journalist hired by Dees in 1981 to form Klanwatch, a unit of the SPLC specifically designed to promote the SPLC’s work against the Klan. In a 1988 cover story in The Progressive magazine, Williams recounted,

“Everybody, it seems, was against the Klan. We developed a whole new donor base anchored by wealthy Jewish contributors on the East and West Coasts, and they gave big bucks.” In particular, Williams noted, “Our budget shot up tremendously—and still, we were sometimes able to raise as much as $3 million a year more than we could spend.”

Dees’ success against the Klan came largely from filing civil suits against local chapters, whereby the defendants had to provide for their own legal defense. Being rural and poor, most could not afford counsel and attempted to defend themselves in court. Being largely uneducated and semi-literate, most failed in the attempt.

These successes drew the ire of the Klan, and in the summer of 1983 there was an arson attack on SPLC headquarters. Dees wrote in his autobiography that he was, quite naturally, furious, and called his old friend Claude Henley into his office for a chat. When Henley arrived, Dees dialed up United Klans of America Imperial Wizard Bobby Shelton, on the speakerphone.

Below is Dees’ account of what happened next. CAUTION: Mr. Dees has a fondness for expletives:

shotgun

Granted, as the sole survivor of the alleged conversation, we only have Morris Dees’ word for it, but the exchange does raise some important questions. Why would Dees have the phone number of an Imperial Wizard on file? Why was he on a first name basis with Shelton? Why did Dees choose Henley to act as interlocutor?

Dees mentioned that Bobby Shelton was also named in the Freedom Rider suit. Millard Fuller said the $5,000 fee was paid by the Klan. Does it stand to reason that Bobby Shelton issued the payment to Morris Dees in 1962?

[It is interesting to note that, even in Alabama, pointing a loaded shotgun at someone, even a Klan thug, is a felony. Under Alabama state law, (Statute: AL § 15-3-1 et seq, to be precise), while most felonies have a mere 3-year statute of limitations, “Any felony involving the use, attempted use, or threat of, violence to a person” has NO such limitation. In essence, Morris Dees’ self-serving braggadocio is a published confession to a felony crime, and so Mr. Dees is still liable to arrest and prosecution.]

All this brings us to 1987 and the Michal Donald murder case. Late on the evening of March 21, 1981, 19-year- old Michael Donald was walking home alone in Mobile, AL, when he was approached by two men in a car, Henry Hays, 26, and James “Tiger” Knowles, 17.

Hays and Knowles, both members of the local United Klans of America chapter, had learned earlier that night that the trial of a black defendant, Josephus Anderson, charged with killing a white policeman, had ended in a mistrial when the jury, composed of eleven blacks and one white, could not reach a unanimous verdict. Incensed, the two men went into Mobile in search of a black person to murder in revenge for the perceived failure of the court system. Michael Donald was simply a convenient victim.

Sighting Donald, who was out buying cigarettes for his sister, the men pulled up to the sidewalk on the pretense of asking directions to a local club. When Donald approached the car, he was forced into the back seat at gunpoint and driven to an isolated location. After a struggle, with Donald literally fighting for his life, the two managed to knock the young man unconscious and cut his throat with a razor knife.

Hays and Knowles then put Donald’s lifeless body in the trunk of the car and drove back to Mobile, where they tied the corpse to a small tree across the street from the home of Bennie Hays, Henry Hays’ father. The elder Hays was the leader of the local Klan unit, UKA 900, and his son was eager to show off his handiwork. Had a larger tree been available across the street, Hays would have hung Donald’s corpse from a branch.

After considerable foot-dragging by the Mobile police department, including a false lead that some have called a deliberate red herring, Knowles and Hays were arrested, but it was only the persistence of Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Figures and extensive investigation by the FBI on civil rights violations grounds that brought Hays and Knowles to trial in 1984, two-and-a-half years after the murder.

“Tiger” Knowles was persuaded to testify against his friend Henry Hays in return for leniency, and in short order, both men were convicted of the murder of Michael Donald by an all-white jury. Henry Hays received the death penalty and Knowles was sentenced to life in prison. Hays was only the second white man to be executed for the murder of a Black man in Alabama history. Even in the heart of Alabama, the slow wheels of justice had finally turned.

Morris Dees wrote in his autobiography that he attended the Hays trial as a spectator, in 1984, and returned to Montgomery determined to bring a civil suit against the United Klans, Bennie Hays and his old nemesis, UKA founder and Imperial Wizard, Robert “Bobby” Shelton.

“I didn’t know whom we would sue or exactly what our theory would be, but that really didn’t matter. This was the most gruesome racially motivated murder in almost twenty years. We’d find something.”

Dees added one more, rather telling comment that never makes it into the “bringing the Klan to its knees” legend reprinted in the media:

“One more factor motivated me: The torching of the Center had made my battle against the Ku Klux Klan personal as well as philosophical,” (p. 214).

This stunning confession that Morris Dees was essentially going on a fishing expedition to exact revenge against Bobby Shelton is worth considering and alters Dees’ “white crusader” image entirely.

To his credit, Morris Dees was among the first to use common tort laws in local courts, which was rather innovative at the time. As mentioned, in a civil suit the defendants are entitled to the best legal representation they can personally afford, or go without. Unlike a criminal case, where plaintiffs must prove their case “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” in a civil suit one need only provide a “preponderance of evidence,” which is a much lower bar to surmount. Additionally, in a civil suit there are no double-jeopardy limitations, so if your first suit doesn’t succeed, you may simply try, try again.

Dees was faced with a couple of hurdles in crafting his suit. First off, the actual murderers, Hays and Knowles were locked away forever, rendering them “judgement proof.” This led Dees to widen the pool of defendants in an innovative attempt to prove “vicarious guilt,” in which the people named in the suit had never been criminally charged with any connection to the actual murder.

The crucial piece of the puzzle was finding a plaintiff who had the legal standing to sue the United Klans. That meant Michael Donald’s 66-year-old mother, Beulah Mae Donald, who had already endured the ordeal of the criminal case against Hays and Knowles a few years earlier.

Some media accounts claim that Mrs. Donald sought out Morris Dees’ help, but Dees confirms that it was he who sought out Mrs. Donald through her family attorney, Michael Figures, the brother of the assistant U.S. attorney, who had reopened the murder case in 1984 (p. 223).

Dees wrote that he warned Mrs. Donald that there was very little chance of receiving much in monetary damages, noting that “Winning money for Mrs. Donald was not my principle aim” (Ibid).

If winning money for the victim’s mother was not Dees’ principle aim for suing the UKA, what was? Justice had ultimately been served with the conviction of the murderers. Mrs. Donald was not actively seeking damages from Hays or Knowles (her final words to them at the end of the trial were of forgiveness), it was Morris Dees who had actively sought her out. Mrs. Donald’s heath had suffered from the criminal trial and the local Klan thugs seemed content to simply distance themselves from the convicted murderers. Why stir up trouble?

In short, the most likely motive behind Morris Dees’ civil suit against the UKA was the personal revenge he wrote of in his autobiography, not to mention the righteous sensation it would cause among the SPLC’s donor base, even if he lost. As Dees was going to try the case himself and any additional legal costs would be borne by the Center, his financial investment in the suit was less than minimal. Morris Dees had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

And so it went. Morris Dees got his civil suit against the UKA. Of the multiple defendants cited, only Imperial Wizard Bobby Shelton had the wherewithal to afford an attorney. Dees won a $7 million judgment against the UKA, which had to surrender its only tangible asset, its “national headquarters.” The rest is history, except few in the media seem interested in following that history. Here is a thumbnail version:

  • Sale of the UKA’s building brought in only $52,000, or less than one percent of the $7 million judgment.
  • Ken Silverstein noted in Harper’s magazine in 2000 that while Mrs. Donald only received $52,000 from the loss of her son, the SPLC garnered over $9 million dollars from direct mail fundraising appeals that included a photo of Michael Donald’s bloated corpse. Mrs. Donald never saw a dime of that money.
  • Morris Dees authorized the SPLC to advance Mrs. Donald the $52,000, interest free, until the sale of the building could be finalized. Dees contended that the building was worth far more but that the price had been suppressed by the notoriety of the civil suit. If this were the case, why didn’t Mr. Dees offer to buy the building at a fair price and simply hold onto it until it could be sold at a fair market value? He was, after all, a multimillionaire. Why wouldn’t he want Mrs. Donald to receive the full price?
  • The money Mrs. Donald received in the judgment rendered her ineligible to remain in the public housing unit where she had spent much of her adult life. At 66, she had to buy her first home on her own.
  • Morris Dees made sure to be back in Mobile for a photo-op of him handing Mrs. Donald the keys to her new home personally, as a Great White Savior.
  • After the civil suit, Morris Dees returned to Montgomery, leaving Mrs. Donald on her own in Mobile, to live among her angry Klan neighbors.
  • Beulah Mae Donald died less than a year after moving into her new home. Dees wrote, “The pain of losing her Donald was too much for her heart to bear.” (p. 332) Arguably, since she had lost “her Donald” more than six years prior, the strain of a second courtroom drama, confronting the Klansmen who murdered her son on a daily basis, probably had more to do with Mrs. Donald’s heart condition. Recall, it was Morris Dees who persuaded her to bring the suit.

Perhaps the most damning evidence that Morris Dees simply exploited the murder of Michael Donald and then used his mother, Beulah Mae Donald, in a crass fundraising scheme, came a few years later.

A 1991 article in People magazine featured an interview with “Bubba” Dees, the “wily Alabamian” who “uses the courts to wipe out hate groups.” During the interview, Dees revealed that he had recently been in contact with Tiger Knowles, one of Michael Donald’s confessed murderers:

“A few weeks ago, Dees accepted a collect call to his office from James “Tiger” Knowles, one of the men doing time for the Mobile lynching.

‘What you doin’ callin’ me collect, boy,’ Dees laughed. ‘You done escaped or something?’

Tiger was calling to get Dees’s [sic] advice on a book he’s writing. ‘You get a contract, I’ll look at it for you, Tiger.

Did I treat you right in my book?’ Dees asked.”

Considering Dees referred to the Donald murder in his autobiography as “the most gruesome racially motivated murder in almost twenty years,” Mr. Dees appeared to be on very congenial terms with the surviving murderer. Why would he even accept a call from Tiger Knowles and why would he laughingly offer to help him? Was this the “season for justice” Dees spoke of in the title of his book?

Morris Dees got his revenge on Bobby Shelton. His company made millions of dollars in donations at the time and the legend of “bringing the Klan to its knees” was born, which has no doubt brought in additional millions.

Dees ultimately staged several other show trials, based on the success of the Donald case. The plot seldom varied. Dees would file a vicarious liability civil suit against a “hate group,” a sympathetic jury would find against the often unrepresented defendants, huge judgments were decreed with the plaintiffs lucky to receive pennies on the dollar. Morris Dees, master direct mail salesman, would exploit the fundraising potential of each case to raise millions for the SPLC, of which the victims received nothing. Each time, Dees’ legend grew just a little larger.

Now that the media has finally been forced to look more closely into the claims of racism and sexual misconduct against Morris Dees, maybe it’s time to flip a few flat rocks and examine the personal conduct and fundraising methods of this “Great White Savior.”

 

 

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SPLC — Every Tragedy Has a Golden Lining

August 1, 2011

We’ll say this for Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees… he’s consistent.

The first of the Norwegian murder victims had not even been buried before Rumpelstiltskin Dees began spinning their tragedy into gold:

Southern Poverty Law Center

July 26, 2011

“Dear Friend,

The terrorist attack that took the lives of so many children in Norway is a sobering reminder that hate and extremism can drive people to commit unspeakable acts of violence.

The problem is just as grave in our country. For the first time, hate groups here have topped 1,000, and the potential for widespread damage is mounting. Just this year, a neo-Nazi was arrested for planting a bomb that could have killed hundreds along an MLK Day parade route in Spokane.

That’s why it’s so shocking that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has bowed to political pressure from conservatives and dramatically cut back the resources it’s devoting to the threat from right-wing extremists. We exposed DHS’ reckless decision in June and have called on the agency to reverse course.

The tragedy in Norway takes me back to the Oklahoma City bombing, the work of a right-wing fanatic that left 168 people dead. Months before that attack, we warned federal officials about the mounting danger from radical extremists. Now, with your help, we’re speaking out again. Too much is at stake to remain silent.

Your voice — your support — is amplifying ours. Thank you for standing with us.”

Sincerely,

Morris Dees
Founder, Southern Poverty Law Center

“For the first time,” Dees warns, “hate groups here have topped 1,000.” Little matter that there is no legal definition of  “hate group” or that the SPLC is the sole arbiter of this arbitrary appellation. Dees neglects to mention that his $147,000 donor-dollar a year “Intelligence Director” Mark Potok can’t seem to locate 262 of these groups on the map, or that Potok fails to offer almost any information on the size or location of any of them.

“A neo-Nazi was arrested for planting a bomb that could have killed hundreds…” While no one in their right mind would minimize the very real dangers of a pipe bomb, only a calculating propagandist like Mr. Dees would deliberately exaggerate the deadly potential of the Spokane device.

According to the FBI and news reports:

“Law enforcement sources described the device to ABC News as a “small pipe bomb” designed to be triggered by a radio frequency system.”

“He [FBI agent Frank Harrill] added that authorities believe the device “was potentially lethal and could have had the ability to inflict multiple casualties.”

Again, let no one diminish the danger this device posed to people in the immediate vicinity, but really, Mr. Dees, “… could have killed hundreds?? Nothing like a little groundless hyperbole to pad the numbers, eh, Mr. Dees?

The blood had yet to be scrubbed from the sidewalk in Tuscon, Arizona this past January, after a shooting spree left six dead and thirteen wounded, and there was Mark Potok, on his Huffington Post soapbox, psychoanalyzing accused gunman Jared Loughner. It was only the release of Loughner’s Uncle Fester-esque mug shot that forced Potok to throw in the towel and admit that Loughner was seriously mentally ill.

Jared Loughner

This didn’t prevent Potok from attempting to gain access to Loughner’s “right-wing” psyche by analyzing a short list of books found on Loughner’s YouTube profile. Forget the fact that nearly every book on the list has been required reading for high school students since at least the 1970s, Swami Potok, who has no legal or law enforcement background, and certainly no psychological experience, (at least not as a practitioner), scrutinized the tea leaves, read the chicken bones and pronounced that “… an anti-government thread runs through all those works.”

Among this chilling list were such anarchistic works as “Peter Pan,” “The Phantom Toll Booth,” and a personal favorite of Potok’s boss, Klan lawyer Morris Dees, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Basically, there is no tragedy, no lone-wolf psychopath, that cannot be lumped into a fund-raising ploy by the SPLC.

Morris Dees has a long history of exploiting murder victims for cash in this fashion. During the 1986 civil trial of two Klan thugs who had been convicted and sentenced for the murder of Michael Donald, Morris Dees sent out hundreds of thousands of donor letters featuring a photo of Donald’s bloated corpse.

While the jurors in the trial undeniably had every right to see the photo, what possible reason could there be to send this hideous image out to donors who had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the trial? Well, as Ken Silverstein reported in Harper’s Magazine, Dees’ gruesome gambit brought more than $9 million tax-free donor-dollars into the SPLC’s coffers.

Dees won a $7 million dollar wrongful death suit against the United Klans of America, which promptly turned over its sole asset to Michael Donald’s mother. Mrs. Donald got a barn worth $52,000 dollars, which is definitely better than nothing, but she never saw a dime of the $9 million Dees made by exploiting her son’s murder. Dees even includes the photo of Donald’s corpse in both iterations of his autobiography.

Dees has used the same gimmick in six other show trials since:

1. The SPLC’s multimillion dollar publicity machine kicks into gear.

2. Hundreds of thousands of donor letters go out on cue.

3. Huge damages far beyond the assets of the defendants are awarded.

4. The victims get a fraction of the amount awarded and the SPLC rakes in millions in donations.

It’s bad enough that the SPLC exploits the deaths of adults to make money, but to exploit the murders of innocent children, before their grieving families have even had a chance to give them a decent burial, is reprehensibly low even for the likes of Morris Dees.

Mr. Dees, have you no decency?


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