Bubba Dees, 54, is known around Mount Meigs, Ala., for inventing a nifty little chicken plucker and raising some of the fattest hogs in Montgomery County back in his high school days. But he's better known as an unusually effective and courageous civil rights lawyer—the man who has won, in addition to dozens of other civil rights actions, three big cash judgments against white supremacist groups. For that reason, three times over the past 10 years gunmen have been flushed from the tall grass by Bubba's heavily armed bodyguards.
Once someone appeared on Christmas Eve, 1984, as Dees and his 14-year-old daughter, Ellie, decorated the tree. He grabbed his Beretta, handed Ellie a .22 and ordered his bodyguards over walkie-talkie to "shoot the motherf——-." The man escaped.
Now he rides with his 9 mm automatic stuck into his blue jeans. His third wife, Elizabeth Breen Dees, 35, keeps a riot gun on her side of the bed. In 1983 Dees's office in downtown Montgomery was firebombed; since then, both it and Dees's 250-acre ranch have been turned into fortresses.
The caution is well advised. In 1984 a white supremacist group named the Order plotted to assassinate Dees and Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg. That year, on June 18, Berg was gunned down when he returned home from a trip to the grocery. Security around Dees reached presidential proportions. He has so many credit cards with fake names, he sometimes forgets who he is when checking into hotels or making airplane reservations. "Now, some of them is pretty nice fellas," says Dees of his many enemies, "but mostly they're yellowbelly chickens—-s."
And some of them are a lot poorer, thanks to him. Dees pioneered a novel legal strategy: filing suit against the leaderships of racist organizations to hold them financially accountable for the violent consequences of their hate-mongering. The first victory using this strategy came in 1987, when Dees's Southern Poverty Law Center (which he founded in 1970 with fellow lawyer Joe Levin) won a $7 million wrongful death suit against the United Klaus of America by persuading a jury that its message of racial violence prompted two Klansmen to lynch Michael Donald, a young black man in Mobile, Ala. Beulah Mae Donald, Michael's mother, was awarded the deed to the $250,000 Klan headquarters, and the local Klan was bankrupted.
Last year Dees won a $12.5 million judgment in a similar case against Thomas Metzger, head of White Aryan Resistance, and his son John, on behalf of the estate of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant in Portland, Oreg., who was beaten to death in 1989 by two skinheads who were, Dees showed, encouraged by Metzger's philosophy of racial violence. To enforce the judgment, the court ordered Metzger's $150,000 house seized and all his possessions attached—even the tools he used in his TV repair business in Fallbrook, Calif. Metzger is now on welfare.
This bulldog commitment to justice Dees credits to his father, Morris Seligman Dees Sr., who farmed cotton on a 125-acre spread near Mount Meigs. Morris, the eldest of his five children, got his first lesson in racial justice administered to him when he was 5.
Bubba called a field hand a "big black nigger." His father took off his belt and whupped Bubba's butt. "He wasn't no saint. He was just a good and decent man," says Dees. "If you'd said he was a liberal, he wouldn't know what you was talking about. He just gave black people what they didn't get most anywhere else, a modicum of respect. Just sitting with black friends of my daddy's, I began to feel their hurt, and I took it personal. I'm not a crusader. I don't represent causes. I represent people who have been hurt."
"Bubba's daddy had a lot of git-up-and-git, and I guess the two of us passed on to the children this ambition and drive," says Bubba's mom, Annie Ruth, who can't help worrying when she sees her son on TV, surrounded by gun-toting security guards. "You have that fear," she says. "Then you burst with pride."
Seeing his father struggle as a tenant farmer, Bubba was always determined to own land. "When I was 5, I bought a pig for a dollar. I fattened it up and sold it for $12, then I bought eight or 10 more. I always had a feel for making money," says Dees.
By 1953, he was in high school, making $100 a day selling the refuse from his daddy's cotton gin as mulch to rich city folks. He also started a chicken-plucking operation. "I'd stick an ice pick through their heads, dip 'em in water and run 'em through a little plucker I invented," he says.
As a high school senior, he was honored by Future Farmers of America. He graduated in 1955 with $5,000 in the bank, 50 head of cattle and 200 hogs and the first of three wives, Beverly Crum. They eloped in April 1955 and struck out that fall for the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.
The next year a federal court ordered the university to admit a black student named Autherine Lucy. Watching her run the gauntlet of a screaming mob, Dees says, "I felt sick to my stomach. In Autherine Lucy's face, I saw the faces of my black friends from back home."
Bubba's momma sent him a fruitcake for his first birthday away from home. That gave him the idea to write each student's parents and offer to deliver a freshly baked birthday cake. Soon he and his friend Millard Fuller were selling 350 cakes a month and branching out into mail order. By the time they'd graduated from law school in 1960, they were making $50,000 a year.
The two partners returned to Montgomery and opened a law practice but also continued their business and expanded into books. Their first mail-order title, Favorite Recipes of Home Economics Teachers, sold 250,000 copies in three months.
In 1966 Dees was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America by the U.S. Jaycees. On a business trip, he picked up Clarence Darrow's autobiography and read it in one sitting. "It changed my life," he says. "I decided to help people. I'd already made enough money." The next year he filed suit to integrate the Montgomery YMCA, and people in his hometown began calling him a "nigger lover."
In 1969, at age 34, Dees sold his company to the Times-Mirror company for $6 million. Dees and a new law partner, Joe Levin, began taking civil rights cases throughout the South.
Dees also stumbled into politics. Through a friend, he met Gary Hart, then running George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. Dees's direct-mail wizardry raised over $24 million for McGovern from 600,000 small donors. During the campaign, Dees and Levin started the Southern Poverty Law Center.
They used the McGovern mailing list to drum up financial support. For the first 10 years of the center's existence, Dees drew no salary. (Nor did he accept any of the proceeds of his recently published autiobiography, A Season for Justice, leaving them to his coauthor.) He's now paid $101,100 a year as the center's executive director, commanding a staff of 40, including five full-time lawyers. All clients are represented free of charge.
The SPLC first made national headlines in 1975 when Dees represented Joan Little, a black North Carolina jail inmate who stabbed a white jailer to death with an ice pick when he attempted to rape her. A jury found she acted in self-defense. The Dees team also forced the all-white Alabama State Police to hire its first black, stopped the use of federal funds in Alabama to sterilize poor women involuntarily and won a remarkable 50 out of 50 cases for clients on death row. "We ain't lost much," Dees says. "We hang in there till we win."
Something of a celebrity now (his life was the subject of a January TV movie starring Corbin Bernsen), Dees still prefers hamburger joints and pool halls to fancy restaurants and country clubs. Since he busted his hand rodeo roping in 1970, he has settled for safer hobbies: growing chili peppers and collard greens, fiddling around with his motorcycle. A big evening in the Dees home finds Bubba and Liz reading to each other. He has three grown kids. Morris III, 33, a med student and Johnny, 31, a home builder, are the sons of his first wife. College student Ellie, 21, was born during his 12-year marriage to Maureen Buck.
Dees has an extraordinary ability to befriend even his enemies with his soothing drawl and persuasive manner. "Morris can get the sweetin' out of gingerbread without breaking the crust," marvels SPLC colleague Danny Welch.
A few weeks ago Dees accepted a collect call to his office from James "Tiger" Knowles, one of the men doing time for the Mobile lynching.
"What you doin' callin' me collect, boy," Dees laughed. "You done escaped or something?"
Tiger was calling to get Dees's advice on a book he's writing. "You get a contract, I'll look at it for you, Tiger. Did I treat you right in my book?" Dees asked.
"A lot of people would like to kill Moms, but he's one of the few honest lawyers I ever met," says Tiger. "He comes from the heart."
"I set with a lot of folks that's committed heinous crimes, and it's easy to make a judgment of another person, but Tiger Knowles was a victim of that system too," Dees explains.
From the office of the new $5 million SPLC headquarters, built after the firebombing, Dees can look down at what he calls his proudest achievement, the Maya Lin-designed black-granite monument to 40 people killed in the civil rights movement. It's angled to face the state house where, in 1962, George Wallace pledged his allegiance to segregation.
"If people can look at those 40 names on that monument and say, 'God, they killed this man for using a rest room,' then we've accomplished something," he says.