Morris Dees, Founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), was the featured speaker at the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga annual First Amendment dinner. Mr. Dees was introduced by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. Mayor Berke, a member of Chattanooga’s Jewish community was comfortable in the Federation setting and shared that he was not wearing a tie due to the well-known perils of ketchup. Picking up on the informality, Dees removed his own tie and listened, along with a packed house, to the mayor’s remarks.
After a nod to the fellow lawyers in the room, Berke talked about how government and the law have a responsibility to ensure the quality of life and the fair treatment of all. Not only should everyone get a fair shake, but hate should not flourish in any corner of the city. Introducing Dees, Mayor Berke said that over the past 45 years, few Americans have been as relentlessly outspoken about hate. A successful businessman, Dees never forgot the experience of seeing the Ku Klux Klan’s brutal treatment of an African-American. In 1971, he founded the Southern Poverty Law Center and bankrupted the Klan.
Dees spoke in the folksy, Southern style of storytelling, sharing his Alabama childhood in a small town not far from Montgomery, or the cotton fields. He talked about the legacy of his grandfather, a headstone that reads CSA (Confederate States of America). Dees then pointed to legacies that all Americans should claim: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and ground-breaking lawyer Bobby Lee Cook. Cook, now in his eighties, sat in the audience wearing an iconic blue and white seersucker suit topped by a Colonel Sanders goatee. Small wonder that Cook is rumored to be the model for the television show, Matlock.
For decades, Dees has specialized in using legal strategies to protect diversity. He shared how he got an injunction against one of the oldest terrorist groups in America, the Texas Knights of the Klan. After the Vietnam War, 50,000 Vietnamese immigrants came to the Houston area. The Klan, angered by the competition, threatened to burn the Vietnamese fishing boats. Dees was able to convince the Vietnamese to use the criminal courts to stop the Klan, holding up the example of Dr. King’s perseverance in dangerous times.
Turning to the massacre in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., Dees quoted the shooter’s words, “You people are taking over our country.” Dees explained that this is an echo of the Klan’s from decades ago not an isolated phenomenon. The words resonate in many parts of our country because people of color will eventually be the majority. We’re seeing fear of losing political power and the right to decide where goods are allocated.
According to Dees, hatred runs deeper than many are recognizing. “The Confederate Flag is symbolic of that hate,” explained Dees. He reminded us that in the early days of the civil rights movement, the flag was flown by Alabama’s Governor George Wallace as a defiant message to Bobby Kennedy. Wallace was a segregationist and Kennedy was the U.S. Attorney General in charge of enforcing integration laws. Yes, taking down that flag is a beginning, but, as Dees explains, its removal from state capitals is not a remedy for the deep-seated hatred that it represents.
Less than a week after Dees’ speech, racial divisiveness intensified outside the South Carolina State House. The New Black Panthers and the Klan held rallies on opposite sides of the Confederate flag issue. The New York Times reported that protesters waved Pan-African, Confederate and Nazi flags. Law enforcement intervened to prevent major violence.
There are those who expect the culture clash to become a quirky, distant memory as flags are finally removed. Isn’t that what happened to the zippity doo-dah lyrics of Disney’s film, Song of the South? Most of us have a similar distance to the “Way down yonder in the land of cotton” lyrics of the Confederacy’s national anthem, Dixie. Yet, these memories do not disappear. Elvis’ rendition of Dixie is alive and well on Youtube. So embedded in our society is the word Dixie, that I doubt anyone will ever demand that Dixie cups to be renamed.
Do not underestimate the staying power of Southern memories of the Civil War. The highway that cuts through Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia is called Battlefield Parkway. Down the road is the Chattanooga and Chickamauga National Military Park, a living Civil War Museum. Drive around the area and you’ll see Civil War battles commemorated with road-side plaques, statues of the fallen, and memorial parks. Ancient canons left over from the war are considered heritage items and, by law, cannot be moved, even if they face your front door.
Today, Confederate flags are being flown as push back in the commercial districts in Fort Oglethorpe. The flag waves from pick-up trucks and store windows. A picture of the Confederate flag is pinned to a lamp post above the picture of a fallen soldier in the recent Chattanooga massacre. Cars sport a new crop of Confederate flag bumper stickers saying, Pride not Prejudice, and Heritage not Hatred. As culturally aware as these bumper stickers may feel to the drivers, for most of us they represent less a path to reconciliation than a hunkering down and a circling of the wagons.
We could be forgiven for growing frustrated and discouraged. Yet, giving up is not an option for Dees and the SPLC. They just issued an interactive map showing Confederate flag rallies throughout the country. Undeterred by the magnitude of the task, Dees issues a call to action, “It’s up to us to take a stand and reconcile with those who are different than we are. If we as a nation can’t come to terms and provide justice in our schools and our communities, then we can’t succeed.”