If American Jewry had been a kingdom during the latter half of the twentieth century, Morris B. Abram (1918−2000) would have been a strong candidate to be its king. He was the youngest president in the history of the American Jewish Committee, served briefly as the second president of Brandeis University, and was chairman of both the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. His service in the non-Jewish world was equally noteworthy.
During the administration of Lyndon Johnson, he was co-chairman of the planning committee for the White House Conference on Civil Rights, the American representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and Senior Advisor to Arthur Goldberg, America’s ambassador to the U.N. In the 1970s, he chaired the United Negro College Fund, headed New York State’s Moreland Commission, which investigated the state’s nursing home industry, and was chairman during the Carter administration of the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. During the 1980s, he served for three years on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and in the 1990s, was ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations and the Founding Chairman of UN Watch. All told, he served five American presidents.
One would never expect a person born and raised in the small Georgia town of Fitzgerald, with its dozen or so Jewish families, to reach such heights. David E. Lowe argues that Abram, at an early age, developed “a profound sense of alienation” due to growing up in a strictly racially segregated milieu, and this, along with the Holocaust, led to his life-long fight against all forms of discrimination and his fervent support of the beleaguered state of Israel. Abram’s fervent attachment to the Jewish people could not have been predicted; his Jewish education as a youth was sparse at best, he refused to join a Jewish fraternity while in college on the grounds that he was personally opposed to groups segregated by race or religion, two of his three marriages were to non-Jews, he was not buried in a Jewish cemetery, and he showed little interest in the religious and cultural aspects of Jewish life.
Abram showed academic promise at an early age. He was valedictorian of his high school class, graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from the University of Georgia in 1938, and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship. He was preparing to attend Oxford University in 1939 when the Rhodes program was suspended because of the outbreak of World War II. Instead Abram enrolled at the University of Chicago’s law school. After graduation, he served in the air force and then spent the summer of 1946 working on the American prosecution team of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany which tried Nazi war criminals. Abram was a highly skilled and much sought after litigator at the prestigious law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison in New York City. His most noteworthy legal accomplishment was helping convince both a circuit court and then the Supreme Court to endorse the principle of “one person, one vote,” thereby overturning the state of Georgia’s county unit system of voting which under-represented the state’s urban residents.
Abram consistently opposed discrimination in any form, including racial quotas, timetable, set‑a sides, political correctness, and affirmative action. As a result, former allies in the civil rights movement came to view him as a traitor to the cause. But they, not him, had changed. He remained loyal to Martin Luther King’s original vision of a society in which people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. He wrote to President Ronald Reagan that the civil rights movement had turned a dangerous corner and “should return to first principles — the zealous regard for equal opportunity and the promotion of colorblind law and social policy.” Lowe, a former vice president for government relations and public affairs at the National Endowment for Democracy, strongly agrees with such sentiments, and, not surprisingly, his biography is a laudatory examination of its subject.