Keynote speaker Morris Dees discusses social injustices in lecture honoring MLK Day
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com
Dees is an acclaimed civil rights lawyer and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He's developed a reputation litigating against organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
During the speech, which took place Monday morning at Hill Auditorium, Dees cautioned his listeners that the election of President Barack Obama was not the book-end to the narrative of the American struggle for civil rights.
"Dr. King, if he was here today, he would tell you that the march for justice continues, and we all have a front row seat," he said to the audience. "There's so many places that we can dip in and we can take part and we can make a difference."
Dees discussed a broad range of social injustices that SPLCenter, is working to correct, including LGBT rights and unequal access to quality healthcare and education.
Two issues that Dees said he considered paramount were redesigning American society to provide equal opportunities to all members of its increasingly diverse population as well as balancing the nation's widening wealth gap.
Retelling the tale of the Biblical prophet Amos, a tale that King referenced as well, Dees said, "Unless you're fair to all of your people and give all of your people an equal opportunity, you're not going to keep what you have. It's going to be taken away from you."
Through historical musings and anecdotes of his experiences as a civil rights activist, Dees elaborated on these points, integrating all fronts of the civil rights struggle into a unified frontier of social progression. Moreover, he did so in a way that imagined aloud everything he thought America always should have been and still can be.
"The perspective that he has about the future is very telling and he has a lot of foresight based on his work, his experience," Vonnie McLoyd, professor of psychology at U-M.
Some audience members also noted that his experience showed through as well.
"Because the work he's done with domestic terrorist groups, he brings great credibility to both his comments about his previous work and also his perspectives about the future," said Cheryl Munday, professor at University of Detroit Mercy.
Dees closed his speech with lyrics from a classic Americana song by Woodie Guthrie.
"A lot of people haven't heard this rhyme from his song, 'This Land Is Your Land,' because it's rarely repeated," he said.
"'There was a great high wall there that tried to stop me, a big sign there that tried to stop me. It said private property, bot on there other side it didn't say nothing. That side was made for you and me.'"