Immigration Most Significant Civil Rights Issue

Today's big issue, according to a veteran of civil rights wars: Latino immigrants.

"Latinos are the sharecroppers of the 21st century," said Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who will speak Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale. "The immigrant movement is probably the most significant civil rights issue."

Dees, 72, has helped combat groups such as the Aryan Nations and the United Klans of America. His talk at All Saints Episcopal Church will deal with the effects of Barack Obama's presidency.

But immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries are suffering the same discrimination, he said from his headquarters in Montgomery, Ala.

"Whether it's homes or health care or insurance, a lot of [discrimination] has nothing to do with race," Dees said. "It has to do with . . . sharing the resources of the country.

"We need to build bridges across class, race, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion."

Dees pointed to the recent presidential election as both a positive and negative sign. He suggested that many Americans quietly share the stated hope of commentator Rush Limbaugh that Obama will fail as president.

"Obama was handed two wars and the collapse of the banking system, and people are already asking why hasn't he changed things," Dees said. "I think it's from systemic prejudice."

The views may be controversial, but Dees has earned the right to them. Since 1971, the Southern Poverty Law Center has sued numerous Klansmen, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, skinheads and others on behalf of victims. The resulting court judgments have sometimes forced hate groups to give up their headquarters, as the Aryan Nations did in 2001.

Dees and his organization have fought for Latinos as well. In November, the center won a $2.5 million judgment against the Imperial Klans of America in the beating of a teen of Panamanian descent. The center has created the Immigrant Justice Project to fight workplace abuse and Esperanza to target sexual harassment of female immigrant workers.

The growth of hate groups isn't one of the positive signs: On Feb. 26, the center released a study that counted 926 in 2008, up from 888 the previous year and 602 in 2000.

Still, Dees remains an optimist. "I believe in the big sweep of history. Society has clearly moved forward with human and civil rights."

Event Details

What: Speech by Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial attorney of Southern Poverty Law Center
When: 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 11
Where: All Saints Episcopal Church, 333 Tarpon Drive, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Cost: Free
Information: 954-467-6496 or