In the early 1960s, Joseph J. Levin, Jr. saw one of his University of Alabama fraternity brothers persecuted for expressing unpopular views. Melvin Meyer, editor of the school newspaper, the Crimson White, was taunted by fellow students and the community because he courageously argued in favor of integration at a time when Alabama Governor George Wallace "stood in the schoolhouse door" to prevent black students from enrolling at the state's largest college. The harassment directed at Meyer peaked when the Ku Klux Klan burned a 12-foot cross in front of Levin's Jewish fraternity house early one morning.
|Joseph J. Levin, Jr.
(photo: Paul Robertson)
"Over time, that one incident forced me to re-evaluate the traditional Southern attitude I'd grown up with," Levin says.
Levin grew up in Montgomery. He was in junior high school when Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on a city bus, the incident that sparked a year-long bus boycott by Montgomery's black citizens and the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. But Levin, like most of his white friends, was oblivious to the boycott's significance.
It wasn't until Levin witnessed the hate directed at Meyer that his lifetime convictions were shaken.
"Prior to that time, I saw myself as a white Southerner," he says. "I had not experienced that kind of naked hatred. Once my eyes were opened, I couldn't ignore others who were persecuted around me.
"Melvin's way was correct. The way I was instructed all my life was wrong."
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Joseph J. Levin, Jr. was born in Montgomery in 1943. His father was a lawyer with a commercial practice, and young Levin entered law school, just as his family expected him to do. He earned his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Alabama in 1966.
After serving two years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Levin returned to his hometown to join his father's law practice. But the security of an established commercial practice left him unsatisfied.
From the privacy of his office, he cheered another young Montgomery lawyer Morris Dees as he made headlines with the successful representation of a series of underdogs in civil rights cases. Levin told Dees' brother he'd like to help.
Joe Levin and Morris Dees collaborated on a high-profile defense case that became the Associated Press's news story of the year. Though inexperienced in civil rights practice, Levin was "a natural-born trial lawyer, tireless and bright," Dees says. The two decided to start the law firm that eventually grew into the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"We worked well together and wanted the same thing from the practice a blend of exciting and socially significant cases," says Dees.
As the Center's legal director from 1971 until 1976, Levin worked on more than 50 major civil rights cases. He argued the landmark sex discrimination case, Frontiero vs. Richardson, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law giving preferences to men in the military. He also argued and won Gilmore vs. City of Montgomery, in which the Supreme Court prohibited the use of public recreational facilities by private academies seeking to avoid school desegregation.
In 1976, Levin left the Center to supervise President-elect Jimmy Carter's Justice Department transition team. He went on to serve as Special Assistant to the Attorney General and Chief Counsel to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 1979, he entered private practice in Washington, D.C.
Levin continued his connection to the Center by serving as its president and board chairman. In September 1996, Levin returned to Montgomery to assume the role of chief executive officer. Beginning in November 2003, Levin serves as president emeritus, helping guide the Center today and in the future.