Morris Dees is a born salesman who was a committed capitalist before he entered elementary school. “When I was 5, I bought a pig for a dollar. I fattened it up and sold it for $12,” he once told People magazine. “I always had a feel for making money.”
When his mother sent him a fruitcake his freshman year in Tuscaloosa, Morris and classmate Millard Fuller wrote other students’ parents offering to deliver freshly baked birthday cakes. Soon they were selling 350 cakes per month. By the time they left law school, they were making $50,000 a year—$400,000 in today’s dollars.
After graduation, Dees and Fuller hung out a shingle and practiced law. But the real money came from their mail order business, peddling everything from cookbooks to tractor cushions. In 1969, Dees sold the direct-mail firm to the Times Mirror Co. for $6 million. By then, Fuller had cashed out, given away his money, and with his wife gone to live a Christian life building homes for the poor—efforts culminating in the creation of Habitat for Humanity.
Dees also started a nonprofit, which he named the Southern Poverty Law Center. But he gave up neither the high life nor the direct-mail business. He lives in luxury with his fifth wife and still runs the SPLC, which has used the mail-order model to amass a fortune. Its product line is an unusual one: For the past 47 years, Morris Dees has been selling fear and hate.
The business model is simple, albeit cynical, and best illustrated by its most famous case. In 1987, a Dees-led legal team won a $7 million judgment against the Ku Klux Klan in a wrongful death suit on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, the mother of a 19-year-old kid murdered by members of the racist group. But the defendants’ total assets amounted to a building worth $52,000. That’s how much Mrs. Donald, who died the following year, received. But Dees reaped $9 million for the SPLC from fundraising solicitations about the case, including one showing a grisly photo of Michael Donald’s corpse.
Today, the center boasts a treasury of more than $300 million, the richest civil rights group in the country.
But with the Ku Klux Klan literally out of business, how was the SPLC able to frighten people into still donating? That’s where the AEI’s Charles Murray reenters our story, along with many other mainstream conservative groups. Scaring the bejesus out of people requires new bogeymen, and lots of them.
In recent years, you can find yourself on the SPLC’s “hate map” if you haven’t gotten fully aboard on gay marriage — or the Democratic Party’s immigration views. In other words, the Dees’ group classifies individuals and organizations as purveyors of “hate” for holding the same view on marriage espoused by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton until mid-2012...