With a change of heart . . .

Monday Book Reviews

June 10, 1991|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

A SEASON FOR JUSTICE. By Morris Dees with Steve Fiffer. Scribners. 353 pages. $24.95.

MORRIS Dees does not fit the stereotype of a civil rightlawyer. He is white; he is a Southerner. But that must mean he comes from at least an upper-middle-class urban background, so he could afford to empathize, right?

Wrong. He is the son of a poor farmer and spent the early part of his life moving from tenant farm to tenant farm. And he didn't turn to the law as a path to riches before succumbing to a conscience and taking up civil rights work. He was a wealthy businessman before switching to legal work.

His highly readable "A Season for Justice" is not the story of major cases won, clever strategies, faMyronBeckensteinmous names and the like, though a few are sprinkled in. Mostly it is the story of Dees' fight with the Ku Klux Klan, and the strange relationship he had with some members of the sheeted brotherhood. On the one hand, they said they were out to kill him; on the other, after grilling a Klan leader in court, he hitched a ride to the airport with him.

Dees grew up near Montgomery, Ala., working and playing with blacks. He credits his father with giving him the nontraditional attitude on race. But he was not an early civil rights activist. In fact, it was well into the 1960s, when he was almost 30, before he really became aware of what was going on around him, he says. And he credits a midlife reading of Clarence Darrow's autobiography, picked up while stuck at an airport, for inspiring him to go forth and do good.

With the money he had made in college and soon afterward, he started the Southern Poverty Law Center ("Our primary goal was to fight the effects of poverty with innovative lawsuits and educational programs. We would target customs, practices and law that were used to keep low-income blacks and whites powerless").

Dees is not just spinning camouflage when he talks about helping nonblacks. In fact, the long case opening the book deals with defending Vietnamese immigrants from the Klan.

He got his first taste of old-style Southern justice when he was 16 and tried to help a black friend who had been harassed by the police. It would be easy, he thought, since his friend was innocent. They lost:

"I was 16 at the time, still in high school. I'd always figured that if you told the truth, you'd receive justice. But that hadn't happened in Shorter. I thought about this for a while, and it occurred to me that maybe telling the truth wasn't enough. Maybe it was how you told it. I figured if I was going to be a good lawyer, I'd better know how to tell the truth."

An active church member, he found that the church of his childhood and he were out of step, so he moved to another. But his days of teaching Sunday school stayed with him. The title of the book, incidentally, derives from Ecclesiastes.

The book is more realistic than most lawyer biographies in that Dees spends a lot more time taking depositions than arguing at trials. ("Pretrial investigation, not clever cross-examination or stirring closing arguments, wins most lawsuits," he writes.) And his victories usually result in restraining orders or short prison terms. But he also mentions innovative battles against the Klan. One suit resulted in such a large settlement, $7 million, that a Klan group was forced to turn over its assets to the victim's mother.

The Klan figures prominently in the book, both in Dees' legal sparring with it and in his fears once it targeted him personally.

Though Dees accomplishes much that benefits humankind, the book hints that he is a difficult person to get along with. The staff at the SLPC seems always to be turning over, and by the end of the book Dees is in his third marriage (though he speaks kindly of his first two wives).

He even has nice things to say about the Klansmen: "These men and others like them are bright and completely dedicated. With a change of heart, they could build bonds between the races. Sadly, they hate so deeply that their words and deeds destroy all they touch. I cannot give up hope that they may someday change."

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