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Working to Banish Intolerance in a World Steeped in It

March 30, 2006 By:
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Though they were raised many, many miles apart - across an ocean even - Gerda Weissmann Klein and Morris Dees have seen enough racism, anti-Semitism and social persecution to last both their lifetimes.

Klein, a Holocaust survivor, and Dees, an native Alabaman and civil-rights attorney, spoke to some 250 people last week as part of a panel discussion at the WHYY studios in Philadelphia, sponsored by Gratz College and the Honickman Foundation. The two spoke about the advances they were making in teaching tolerance, and of the importance of love and human kindness.

Psychologist Dan Gottlieb, host of WHYY's "Voices in the Family," moderated the evening's talk, which is scheduled to be broadcast on television and public radio some time in May.

At about the same time that Klein was being persecuted by the Germans in Poland, Dees' family - simple cotton farmers in Alabama - similarly witnessed gross injustices inflicted upon an entire group of people.

"What the Nazis did to the Jews in Europe, plantation owners and law enforcement [officers] were doing to the African-Americans," said Dees, who was born in 1936.

His immediate family, he said, were welcoming to blacks - his mother invited black neighbors over for dinner - something that was certainly not common in the Deep South of the 1940s and 1950s. It was such early experiences, he noted, that resulted in his embrace of tolerance.

"You do stand alone sometimes," said Dees, who said that after he became involved in the civil-rights movement, his uncles asked him to change his last name. "But my mother stood by me through all this."

Klein also noted that she, too, would not be where she is today - or have the same morals - without the solid foundation her parents had set for her.

"When I think back on my childhood, I think of it as sunny and filled with love," said Klein, who nevertheless admitted that perhaps she was only remembering the positive moments. "My family seemed ideal."

Dees enrolled in the University of Alabama in 1955 - the same year the public college was ordered by the Supreme Court to welcome black students. He said he watched in horror as a mob of 10,000 angry people protested one black girl's presence on the historically white campus.

"Every feeling I ever had for the underdog came out," he said. "I didn't want to be a part of that mob; I wanted to defend her."

Dees attended law school, and went on to found the Southern Poverty Law Center, a small civil-rights law firm that, funded by donations, took on pro bono cases. It's earliest portfolios resulted in the desegregation of public facilities and the integration of the Alabama State Troopers.

Now, some four decades later, Dees and Klein have teamed up to combat hatred.

Klein's organization, the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center early last year to develop and distribute an educational kit for eighth- to 12th-graders. Aimed at teaching respect and tolerance of all people, the kit includes "One Survivor Remembers" - an Oscar-winning documentary based on Klein's life - and lesson plans.

The two foundations distributed the kits free of charge beginning in September. As of this month, nearly 60,000 teachers had requested the material.

"The focus of tolerance education is to deal with the concept of equality and fairness," explained Dees. "We need to establish confidence with children that there is more goodness than horror in this world."

But despite the difficulties at breaking down deeply ingrained prejudices among people, both Dees and Klein commented that as much hatred as they've witnessed, they've been exposed to an equal amount of caring.

"Even in the darkest hours," said Klein, "there should always be hope."

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