For the 33rd consecutive year, the Johns Hopkins community gathered to celebrate the legacy and life's work of Martin Luther King Jr.
"The march for justice continues," Dees said. "It didn't end with the voting rights act of 1965. It continues today."
He spoke of divisions in America and what he called a "fear of diversity."
"This nation is great because of our diversity, not in spite of it," Dees said.
Dees recounted stories of his years of human rights advocacy and of using the law to cripple many of the nation's most notorious hate groups. He encouraged the packed auditorium to carry on King's commitment to human rights and social justice.
In addition to Dees' remarks, the event featured a tribute to Maya Angelou, the author, poet, and two-time keynote speaker at King commemorations at Johns Hopkins.
Retired Johns Hopkins professor and surgeon Levi Watkins Jr. hosted the event, as he has each of the 32 previous commemorations. Watkins called Dees "one of the biggest challengers to extremism."
Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels; Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine; and Ronald R. Peterson, president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine, each spoke and underscored the event's theme of tolerance.
Unified Voices, a volunteer gospel choir of Baltimore community members and Johns Hopkins faculty, staff, and students, set an inspirational tone for the gathering. The overflow crowd sang along with "Lift Every Voice," known as the "Black American National Anthem."
Watkins remembered Angelou, who died in May.
"She loved Johns Hopkins," he said.
Watkins introduced a brief video clip of Angelou's last address to the Johns Hopkins community. In the clip, Angelou expressed her appreciation of the Johns Hopkins Unified Voices choir. "My Lord, these children can sing!"
Watkins wrapped up the emotional tribute to Angelou: "It's pretty heavy in here right now."
Each year at the event, Johns Hopkins honors faculty, staff, students and trainees who have exemplified the passion for service and social justice that characterized King's life. This year's recipients of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award were postdoctoral fellow Theresa Barberi, trauma surgeon Albert Chi, physician assistant Janine Coy, registered nurse Rochelle Mariano, home care coordinator Harlisha Martin, protective services officer Nelson Moody Sr., Ph.D. student Adi Noiman and senior research technician Margaret Strong.