by Renaud Lajoie
Two days after white nationalists and protesters faced off at UF, one of the country’s most successful civil rights attorneys, Morris Dees, spoke just blocks away at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center.
He served as the keynote speaker for the Southern Legal Counsel’s 40th anniversary event. The Florida nonprofit law firm, headquartered in Gainesville, has litigated pivotal changes in public policies for the public’s interest against corporations, state and local governments.
Dees, as a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who successfully sued hate groups such as the KKK and nearly bankrupting them with innovative law suits, lauded the SLC for their work.
The Alabama alumnus donated his speech to the SLC but facetiously told the large crowd of mainly civil activist that he had agreed to only start speaking once his Crimson Tide football team finished playing on that game day.
The speech culminated a long week of active protesting against hate groups that were expected to arrive in Gainesville in large numbers.
Dees highlighted how he used the law to help fight injustice for a group of Vietnamese fishermen that were facing armed Klansmen patrolling Texas waters in Galveston bay in 1981, trying to intimidate them out of the shrimping business. He inspired them not to quit with anecdotes of Martin Luther King’s civil rights efforts when they were ready to give up after months of serious threats and potential harm to their families. They won.
He said with the fishermen’s success, years later, they were able to branch out into other things. They were able to send their kids to college and claim a piece of the American dream.
The event honored the work of the SLC for the past 40 years and highlighted current victories such as Chico and Debbie Jimenez who were cited with trespass upon a Daytona Beach park in May 2014 for feeding the homeless on city park property through their ministry, Spreading The Word Without Saying A Word.
SLC and the Jimenez challenged the constitutionality of the city’s ordinance and park rules with a federal lawsuit. The city reached a settlement in March of 2016 where they agreed to lift the 12-year-old ban on feeding the homeless and hungry people in city parks and rescinded its trespass policy. They also lifted the trespass warnings that primarily affected the homeless.
The SLC emanated out of the UF law college as a separate entity to be able to litigate independently of the law school in 1977.
In spite of being a small non-profit law firm that depends on grants, private donations and attorney’s fees from settlements, they operate throughout the state and locally. They have litigated successfully against mass arrests and excessive use of force by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in Miami who disrupted lawful protest in the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2003.
Locally, they helped the residents of Kennedy Holmes reach a settlement with the parent corporation Aimco, whose housing apartments burned down in 2003.