The March of Dimes Alabama Chapter Central Division honored Morris Dees with its Citizen of the Year award.
At a fundraising dinner and silent auction at Wynlakes Golf & Country Club, Dees accepted the honor from attorney Jere Beasley, last year’s recipient.
"I want to pass the mantle to Morris. He’s been a great lawyer and a good friend," Beasley said.
State Sen. Myron Penn presented a resolution from the Alabama State Senate in appreciation of Dees’ work in the civil rights arena.
"I must admit to you that tonight cannot be as special for you as it is for me," Penn said to Dees. "I’m just a country boy from Bullock County, and you provided hope for so many who didn’t have hope."
Dees is most noted for establishing the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 with law partner Joe Levin and NAACP chairman Julian Bond.
During the dinner, Dees was toasted, and roasted, by friends and colleagues Leon Capouano, Richard Cohen and Tommy Miller.
Cohen, who has worked with Dees at the SPLC for 21 years, alluded to the fact some of Dees’ work has not always been popular. That, he said, is one of the reasons he was being saluted by the March of Dimes.
"Morris just wouldn’t leave well enough alone," Cohen said of Dees’ civil rights legal work through the years. "Well, tonight we salute Morris because well enough has not been good enough for our city, state or for this nation. Troublemaking is his motto, his middle name and it will be his legacy. We are all better for it," Cohen said.
Steve Kermish, board chairman for the Central Division March of Dimes, said that the board recognized that some of Dees’ more controversial work has sometimes landed him in harm’s way.
"He does this, and he doesn’t move around in a vacuum. He moves around with a lot of crazy folks who would like to do a lot of harm to him," Kermish said. "And if a Southern man is supposed to be macho, Morris does it in a real positive way . . . he represents some people whose rights would be trampled if he didn’t . . . He is a great ambassador for the city."
Kermish said that the citizen of the year award is more of a recognition for a life’s work.
"The main thing is, it’s really citizen of a lifetime, or at least a certain amount of time," Kermish said. "The thing that impressed us the most about Morris, is that in an era when Montgomery, and Alabama, were pictured to the world in a negative way, Morris and the law center said there’s a different side to Alabamians," Kermish said. "They said ‘we want to promote equality, justice and fairness for everybody.’ The impact that has on a town to change, or to counteract the negative energy, you can’t say how much that affects things."
The positive effect on tourism was a criterion in favor of Dees, as well. The SPLC erected the Civil Rights Memorial in 1989. They added the Civil Rights Memorial Center in 2005 on Washington Street in downtown Montgomery, across from their office building. "There’s no telling how many folks come to Montgomery primarily to see the Civil Rights Memorial Center, the law center, and the whole history of civil rights from the 50s to today," Kermish said.
Dees said the SPLC has tried to be a good citizen of Montgomery since its founding in 1972.
"We have always tried to keep Montgomery’s best interest at heart. When we built the Civil Rights Memorial Center, we decided to make it something that would be an attraction for Montgomery tourism. And it has been. Also, when we built our new (office) building years ago, we chose to leave it here because we felt it important to keep it downtown. We could have moved way out east."
Johnnie Smith, 2007 Citizen of the Year chairman, said about 280 people were in attendance Tuesday night.
"Our budget was $140,000, and we expect to make budget," Smith said. "This is a huge event for us. We have two main events: WalkAmerica in the spring, and this one in the fall."
So far, WalkAmerica is still their biggest, Smith said, "because it’s a national event."
The award is intended to honor an outstanding area citizen whose distinguished leadership and devoted community service have contributed greatly to the quality of life for our state and its children. The award winner is also a person who has given back generously to others. Previous honorees include County Commissioner Todd Strange, Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church’s Senior Pastor the Rev. John Ed Mathison and attorney Jere Beasley.