"Antichrist Jew!" taunted the man wearing the robes of the Ku Klux Klan and an ivory-handled revolver in his belt.
He stood accused of terrorizing the Vietnamese fishermen of Galveston Bay, and he confronted his accuser with an ominous taunt: "You die, you die, you die." But attorney Morris Dees, known to his friends as "Bubba," was undaunted.
"I didn't need a revolver to fight this battle," he writes in "A Time for Justice." "I'd use the law."
Morris Dees is a civil-rights attorney with a swagger, a motorcycle-riding, pistol-packing crusader who has dedicated himself to championing the cause of the poor and oppressed--and, along the way, he has made himself a target of some of the most vicious racists in America.
His life story, as recounted in "A Time for Justice," reads like a treatment for a Hollywood epic, a Scott Turow novel that stood up and walked over to the nonfiction shelves.
Dees' saga is an unlikely (but peculiarly American) variation on the Horatio Alger theme. He is the son of a white tenant farmer from rural Alabama, and he credits his father with directing him toward the law: "You be a lawyer, Bubba," his father told him. "No boll weevil ever ruined a law book."
And his tales of childhood amid the cotton fields and cypress swamps of rural Alabama are richly atmospheric; the first courtroom that Dees ever saw, for example, was a country store where the justice of the peace dispensed a peculiarly backwoods brand of justice as well as "cigarettes, Bruton snuff, King Edward sardines, mule harnesses and plow points."
Dees put himself through law school by selling birthday cakes by direct mail, then made a fortune as a cookbook publisher, eventually selling his company to Times Mirror for $6 million.
"It happened as simply as selling a load of watermelons," he writes.
But money was not enough to satisfy Dees. Goaded by a stern conscience and inspired by a chance encounter with the autobiography of Clarence Darrow, Dees reinvented himself as civil-rights activist.
"I was a good lawyer wasting my time trying to make a few more million dollars," he writes. "I had made up my mind. . . . All the things that had brought me to this point, all the pulls and tugs of my conscience, found a singular peace."
Dees, a founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has long skirmished on the familiar turf of civil-rights litigation--he filed a lawsuit to open the YMCA in Montgomery to black children and he sued the Alabama State Police to compel the hiring of black officers. He defended "the Tarboro Three," three black men accused of raping a white woman, and Joan Little, a black woman accused of killing a prison guard who had sexually assaulted her in her cell.
But what distinguishes Dees from many of his fellow "cause" lawyers is his particular genius for using the law to attack racism in its soft underbelly.
For example, when a gang of Ku Klux Klan members lynched a young black man named Michael Donald in Mobile, Dees came up with the idea of filing a civil suit against United Klans of America on behalf of the victim's mother. He enjoyed a moment of bittersweet triumph when the bankrupt organization turned over the deed to its headquarters in order to pay off a $7-million verdict.
Modesty and self-effacement are not among Dees' virtues, and he frequently indulges in moments of romantic self-glorification. "My personal history and the history of the South were inextricably woven into the rope with which Michael Donald had been hanged," he writes. "It was time to put that rope to rest forever."
But the hot flashes of sentiment are perfectly authentic reflections of his courtroom style, and they help to explain what drives an attorney like Dees to put himself in harm's way.
As I read "A Season for Justice," I was reminded of another book recently reviewed in these pages, "The Litigation Explosion," whose author railed against the legal profession: "Few occupations offer such chances for dishonest persons to become very rich." The best rebuttal to "The Litigation Explosion" is "A Season for Justice" with its moral example of Morris Dees, an attorney who abandoned the money chase and undertook a quest for justice.
Next: Richard Eder reviews "Lot's Wife" by Tom Wakefield (Serpent's Tooth Press).