Touched with Fire: Mor­ris B. Abram and the Bat­tle against Racial and Reli­gious Discrimination

By – July 1, 2020

If Amer­i­can Jew­ry had been a king­dom dur­ing the lat­ter half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Mor­ris B. Abram (19182000) 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.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions

Read­ing the biog­ra­phy of Mor­ris B. Abram is a lit­tle like telling the sto­ry of the Exo­dus dur­ing a Passover seder — it would have been enough if he had just been a civ­il rights activist who unmasked the Ku Klux Klan, or was just instru­men­tal in get­ting the Rev­erend Mar­tin Luther King released from prison, or had just fought against the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry vot­ing sys­tem in his home state of Geor­gia result­ing in the his­toric one man, one vote” rul­ing of the U.S Supreme Court.

It would have been enough if he was just a lead­ing advo­cate for the Jew­ish state of Israel, or the youngest per­son cho­sen to lead the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, or had just led the mas­sive Sovi­et Jew­ry ral­ly on the Wash­ing­ton. D.C. mall, or had just served as chair­man of the Nation­al Con­fer­ence on Sovi­et Jew­ry, and the Con­fer­ence of Pres­i­dents of Major Jew­ish Orga­ni­za­tions. It would have been enough if he had just been the sec­ond pres­i­dent of Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty, or the chair­man of the Unit­ed Negro Col­lege Fund, or the ambas­sador to the Euro­pean Office of the UN. It would have been enough had he just served under five Pres­i­dents of the Unit­ed States — from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush.

Author David Lowe deft­ly tells the sto­ry of Mor­ris B. Abram, who was born in 1918 and raised in the small south­ern town of Fitzger­ald, Geor­gia to a Jew­ish fam­i­ly of hum­ble ori­gins. It is the sto­ry of a bril­liant attor­ney and inspir­ing leader who rose to promi­nence dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry bat­tling the very issues that con­tin­ue to chal­lenge us today — leg­isla­tive appor­tion­ment, affir­ma­tive action, cam­pus unrest, and inter­na­tion­al human rights. David Lowe’s biog­ra­phy of Mor­ris B. Abram skill­ful­ly por­trays the life of a giant of a man whose sto­ry is the sto­ry of Amer­i­ca. It will enlight­en and inspire read­ers of every generation.