Posts Tagged ‘show trial’

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.”

 

 

SPLC — “There’s No Trial Like a Show Trial!”

December 7, 2012

**** UPDATE – 1/4/13 **** Once again, the best source of information on the SPLC’s ham-fisted fundraising tactics is the SPLC’s own website. Under the “Docket” tab on the SPLC’s home page you can find the actual complaint against JONAH, again, something that no Media outlet could bother to do.

According to the 28-page document, the actual lawyers handling the suit are Lite DePalma Greenberg of Newark, NJ, who bill themselves “…as the pre-eminent New Jersey firm for litigation of complex class actions in the areas of securities fraud, antitrust, and consumer fraud.” Sounds like they know what they’re doing.

The SPLC is listed on the complaint as having requested pro hac vice status, which “refers to the application of an out-of-state lawyer to appear in court for a particular trial, even though he/she is not licensed to practice in the state where the trial is being held.”

Now, why exactly would New Jersey’s pre-eminent fraud attorneys require the assistance of an Alabama civil rights law firm, who are not licensed to practice law in the Garden State, especially when you consider that the term “civil rights” does not even appear in the 28-page complaint??

(The same question can be asked of Faegre Baker Daniels, the law firm handling the copyright infringement case filed in Denver on behalf of the New Jersey gay couple. FBD is one of the highest ranked Intellectual Property law firms in the country, and again, the term “civil rights” appears nowhere in the actual legal complaint.)

The short answer, the blindingly obvious answer, is that neither law firm requires the services of the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Alabama.  The SPLC brings nothing to these cases except publicity, and since that publicity is a) highly favorable to their clients’ lawsuits, and b) absolutely free, (The SPLC would never accept a dime in legal fees…), any sharp lawyer would take full advantage of the opportunity.

What’s in it for the SPLC? According to the American Bar Association, the application fees for pro hac vice status run to a maximum of $186 dollars a year in New Jersey, and $250 in Colorado. All of the attorneys assigned to the two cases are already on the SPLC payroll, and even if the pro hac vice fees apply to all four of them you’re looking at a cost of just $808 dollars.

Now Google the term SPLC gay lawsuit (the search works even better if you enclose it in parentheses) and see how many hits you get. We came up with 299,000 hits, but since Google tailors its results to specific users your results may vary. Check out who’s carrying the stories: “mainstream” media outlets like ABC, CNN, Twitter, as well as hundreds of local newspapers and television station web sites. Not surprisingly, the stories have been picked up by countless LGBT web sites and even a number of prominent Jewish sites, due to JONAH’s Jewish origins.

You try buying that much publicity for $800 bucks…

If you notice a certain “sameness” in the “reporting,” that’s just because almost every site is simply regurgitating the highly polished press releases issued by the SPLC’s Public Relations chief, Mark Potok. And all of them claim that the SPLC is somehow “fighting hate” by associating itself in these simple civil suits. The LGBT community includes a lot of financially well-off, Progressive-leaning members who are no more or less prone to investigating the SPLC’s claims than anyone else.

In short, they are the perfect demographic for Mr. Potok and his fundraising minions. The SPLC won’t take a dime in legal fees because they’d probably have to pay taxes on that income, but donations are exquisitely tax-free.

Vaya con dinero!

************************

[Original post] More “mission creep” from “the nation’s leading civil rights organization.” In October, we at WTW noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center was taking on the case of a New Jersey gay couple whose engagement photo had been appropriated by a conservative political group who used the image in campaign ads in Colorado.

The facts in that case are pretty straight-forward: The political group used the photo without the permission of the couple or the photographer, who holds the copyright to the photo.

It’s a copyright infringement case. Nothing more. The plaintiffs are not indigent and there is no shortage of qualified attorneys in New Jersey.

Fast forward to December and the SPLC are back in New Jersey, this time, going after a non-profit group that claims it can “cure” gay Jewish men of being gay. According to SPLC attorney Sam Wolfe, the group Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), deliberately duped a number of gay Jewish men into believing that their homosexuality was a mental aberration that could be “cured” through therapy. Wolfe made his case by stating:

“We found our plaintiffs’ experiences with JONAH to be compelling and even shocking in terms of the types of techniques and misrepresentations the defendants were luring these men into their programs with.”

Wolfe continues:

“People are paying for these services under false pretenses. They are believing and trusting that these counselors know what they are doing, but in fact, they don’t.”

What exactly does “the nation’s leading civil rights organization” propose to do for the plaintiffs in the case? Under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, Wolfe is “…seeking triple monetary damages to cover the cost of “legitimate therapy” and attorneys’ fees.” A case worth thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands.

So, were anyone’s civil rights violated here? Not so much. All of the plaintiffs enrolled in the JONAH program of their own free will. In at least two cases, the adult plaintiff’s fees were paid by their mothers, so these were not the isolated victims of some secretive cult. Again, none of the plaintiffs are indigent.

No civil rights violations. Can you call “antisemitism” when all the parties involved are Jewish? What you have is a cut-and-dried fraud suit, or possibly a malpractice case, but at the end of the day, there is no “hate” going on here, and damn little poverty.

So what does the Southern Poverty Law Center bring to this case and the copyright infringement suit? Publicity. Nothing more. As noted above, there is no shortage of qualified fraud attorneys in New Jersey. The SPLC brings in the publicity and their ace Public Relations guru, Mark Potok, will spin that publicity into gold. Donor gold.

Does the SPLC run any risks by suing a Jewish organization, considering how many of its top donors are Jewish? Again, not so much. JONAH is operated by conservative Orthodox Jews, who are far less likely to donate money to the SPLC than their progressive coreligionists. The rest of the donor base, especially wealthy gay donors, will see this as a gay issue first and a Jewish issue second, if at all.

SPLC founder Morris Dees made his first fortune in direct-mail marketing in the early 1960s. The Maestro, who was inducted into the Direct Marketing Association’s “Hall of Fame” for his fundraising prowess, knows an opportunity for cheap publicity when he sees it. Truly, there is no trial like a show trial for gulling the gullible donors.


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