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ANN ARBOR – Morris Dees, civil rights attorney and founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, spoke about hate groups at the University of Michigan on Feb. 21.
The speech, which drew approximately 150 attendees, prompted extra security by Public Safety officers. Bags were searched and officers were stationed throughout the auditorium. According to The Michigan Daily, Dees has received death threats in the past but none specifically related to this event.
The SPLC tracks hate groups across the country, including 25 groups in Michigan, according to their Web site. “Hate groups don’t go down to the chamber of commerce and register,” Dees said. They have to be found out.
While Dees acknowledged that LGBT people are often targeted by hate groups, his speech focused on immigrants to the United States, which he called the “most pressing and significant” human rights issue today. He singled out anti-immigrant right-wing talking head Lou Dobbs.
Folks like Dobbs, as well as George W. Bush’s talk of building a fence along the border, contributes to an anti-immigrant climate in this country.
“Hate groups are picking up on this,” he said.
There has been progress, however, he said. “If I was standing on this stage in 1850 and I said one day in America that an Irish Catholic would one day become president I would be booed off this stage.”
He listed the claims that used to be made against the Irish who immigrated to America, including that they were stealing jobs, weren’t clean and were alcoholics. “Doesn’t that sound familiar?” he asked, alluding to racist claims against modern day immigrants.
America, he said, is a nation of laws “designed to protect the minority from the majority.”
Hate groups, however, undermine this. “They’re not interested in a democracy,” he said, “they’re not interested in justice.”
The KKK, for example, used violence because “they were afraid and fearful … that equality would take something away from them that they felt privileged to have.”
The biggest divide in this country today, he said, is along economic lines. “We do have a serious issue in this country today about privilege and who has what.”
“America has always loved affirmative action,” he said. “It just depends on whose actions are being affirmed.”
Dees said that Prop. 2, the anti-affirmative action proposal passed by voters last year, was backed by hate groups. Because of fear and hate, he said, progress that has been made in Michigan may be turned back completely.
“Unless you’re fair to all people,” he said, “you won’t continue.”
Speaking of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dees said the civil rights leader’s fight for justice continues. “Human rights begins close to home,” he said. He challenged youth today “to not be fearful” and “to make sure justice truly ‘rolls down like water.'”
“Someday someone’s going to tell the story about your time,” he said, adding that he predicted it would be a story “about one of America’s greatest generations.”