David E. Lowe, win­ner of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, talked with our review­er Edward Shapiro on the incep­tion of his book, Touched with Fire: Mor­ris B. Abram and the Bat­tle against Racial and Reli­gious Dis­crim­i­na­tionand the many threads of iden­ti­ty, civ­il rights, and protest that he looks at in this biography.

Edward Shapiro: You were an under­grad­u­ate stu­dent at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty dur­ing Abram’s brief tenure as its pres­i­dent in the late 1960s. As an under­grad­u­ate, what was your opin­ion of his response to the activ­i­ties of the cam­pus’ rad­i­cals? How did your polit­i­cal and social out­look com­pare with that of Abram? Has your opin­ion changed over the last half cen­tu­ry? Would you have writ­ten the biog­ra­phy of Abram had you not been at Brandeis?

David E. Lowe: Inter­est­ing ques­tions that bring to mind a flood of mem­o­ries. I was only four months into my fresh­man year when six­ty-five Black stu­dents took over Ford Hall, the build­ing that housed Bran­deis’ cen­tral com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­ter and a two-sto­ry audi­to­ri­um that was the venue for large lec­ture class­es, speak­ers, movie nights, etc.

I came from a back­ground vast­ly dif­fer­ent from that of the pre­pon­der­ance of stu­dents at the uni­ver­si­ty, much clos­er in many ways to Mor­ris Abram’s. I had attend­ed the pub­lic schools of Savan­nah, Geor­gia, enter­ing the tenth grade dur­ing the first year of city­wide deseg­re­ga­tion. I was among the very few — most­ly Jew­ish — stu­dents who wel­comed this devel­op­ment. Like Abram, I con­sid­ered myself a polit­i­cal lib­er­al in the tra­di­tion of Har­ry Tru­man and JFK, and I was dis­gust­ed by the raw big­otry of many of my fel­low stu­dents who made life mis­er­able for the incom­ing Black students.

Although I knew the polit­i­cal atmos­phere at Bran­deis would be a com­plete turn­around from what I had expe­ri­enced grow­ing up, I was still lit­tle pre­pared for what I encoun­tered, name­ly, an envi­ron­ment in which the lib­er­al­ism of, say, Hubert Humphrey — remem­ber, this was right before the 1968 elec­tion — would be scorned by the Bran­deis main­stream. Iron­i­cal­ly, he would become a trustee after los­ing the elec­tion to Nixon.

As to whether I would have writ­ten the book had I not been at Bran­deis dur­ing his brief tenure as pres­i­dent, I hon­est­ly believe I would. As I point out in the intro­duc­tion, Abram was known to me at sev­er­al oth­er points in his career, both dur­ing his civ­il rights days and lat­er when he reached the lead­er­ship of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. It’s hard to argue that the sto­ry is not a remark­able one.

ES: Both you and Abram were brought up in Geor­gia, you in Savan­nah and he in Fitzger­ald. Do you believe that being a fel­low South­ern­er influ­enced your deci­sion to write Abram’s biog­ra­phy, and did it pro­vide you a spe­cial empa­thy which non-South­ern­ers might have lacked?

DEL: Yes to both. I remem­ber clear­ly from my child­hood tak­ing the bus down­town with my cousin and get­ting nasty, some­times threat­en­ing looks because we went to the back where the Black pas­sen­gers were seat­ed. When I interned for my local news­pa­per after my fresh­man year of col­lege, the head copy edi­tor would refer to deseg­re­ga­tion as race mixing.”

This is the cul­tur­al envi­ron­ment which the Mor­ris Abram’s, the Ralph McGill’s, and the William Hartsfield’s faced when they set out to bring the part of the coun­try where I grew up into the mod­ern world, one that required its offi­cials to adhere to the con­sti­tu­tion­al stan­dard of equal pro­tec­tion of law.

Do we still have racism and big­otry in our coun­try? Of course, and it is utopi­an to believe that there is some mag­ic vac­cine that can erad­i­cate these poi­sons entire­ly. But as Pat Moyni­han once wrote, the cen­tral lib­er­al truth is that pol­i­tics can change cul­ture, and it was lib­er­als like Abram who should be applaud­ed for tak­ing on the chal­lenge in the time and place in which he operated.

ES: When observers look back, say from the per­spec­tive of 2050, which of Abram’s mul­ti­ple involve­ments and accom­plish­ments do you believe will be con­sid­ered the most important?

DEL: The demise of Georgia’s Coun­ty Unit Sys­tem and the estab­lish­ment of UN Watch. Abram was at the fore­front of bat­tles to chal­lenge both of these injustices.

In the case of the Coun­ty Unit Sys­tem, which entrenched racial seg­re­ga­tion in the state by essen­tial­ly dis­en­fran­chis­ing Black vot­ers, Abram’s vic­to­ry first in the fed­er­al court and lat­er in the Supreme Court had the effect of enabling Geor­gia to elect mod­er­ate gov­er­nors and oth­er offi­cials. (As I men­tion in the book, it opened up a state sen­ate seat that launched Jim­my Carter’s polit­i­cal career.) It also led to the Supreme Court’s One man, one vote” rul­ing which, along with a case from Alaba­ma the fol­low­ing year, forced the reap­por­tion­ment of near­ly every state leg­is­la­ture in the country.

Abram’s appoint­ment by the first Pres­i­dent Bush as US Ambas­sador to the UN agen­cies in Europe enabled a return to his UN days dur­ing the Kennedy and John­son admin­is­tra­tions when he fought hero­ical­ly to hold that insti­tu­tion to its founders’ orig­i­nal prin­ci­ples. Instead, what he found was a cyn­i­cism and hypocrisy that opened the doors to anti­semitism and Israel — bash­ing that went unchal­lenged even by many of America’s allies.

After his tenure as ambas­sador, Abram played the major role in the found­ing of UN Watch, a plat­form he used to expose both the UN’s mis­treat­ment of Israel and its fail­ure to inves­ti­gate and con­demn human rights abus­es by the world’s worst abusers. Some­times it’s a lone­ly voice, but the fact that the coun­tries that UN Watch calls out try very hard to silence it proves that it’s hav­ing an impact.

ES: What moti­vat­ed you to go to Bran­deis rather than, say, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia, Abram’s alma mater? Do you feel that being edu­cat­ed out­side the South bet­ter equipped you to under­stand Abram’s polit­i­cal and social trajectory?

DEL: Bran­deis was lit­tle known in the part of the coun­try where I grew up, but was well known with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, main­ly through the net­work of women’s aux­il­iary groups that sup­port­ed its library. I recall hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion dur­ing my junior year of high school with an acquain­tance who was then in her junior year at Bran­deis and who encour­aged me to apply. Although a well-respect­ed uni­ver­si­ty today, the aca­d­e­m­ic rep­u­ta­tion of Geor­gia in those days was not the best, and my ambi­tion was to attend one of the bet­ter-known uni­ver­si­ties in the South. In the end, I decid­ed to take a shot at Bran­deis, believ­ing it would afford me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to broad­en my edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence. Frankly, I was sur­prised when I was accepted.

Regard­ing your sec­ond ques­tion, I do believe that leav­ing the South helped give me insight into Abram’s polit­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry, one that close­ly tracks with my own. But it was not so much my expo­sure to a north­ern cam­pus but rather the changes in the gen­er­al polit­i­cal cli­mate such as the rise of the New Left, the politi­ciza­tion of uni­ver­si­ties all over the coun­try, the turn of the lib­er­al church­es and oth­ers on the Left against Israel after the Six-Day War, etc. that brought about a reassess­ment not so much of my views but rather my polit­i­cal asso­ci­a­tions, as they did for many oth­ers, includ­ing Mor­ris Abram.

ES: Based on Abram’s back­ground, few could have pre­dict­ed his fer­vent involve­ment in Jew­ish life. How do you account for it?

DEL: This is one of the most inter­est­ing aspects of his life. Abram grew up in a rur­al town in south cen­tral Geor­gia with twelve Jew­ish fam­i­lies. His moth­er, the grand­daugh­ter of one of the first Reform Rab­bis in the US and a force­ful fig­ure in the fam­i­ly, con­sid­ered Judaism strict­ly a reli­gion and not a peo­ple with a com­mon his­to­ry and a shared iden­ti­ty. Abram was influ­enced in ado­les­cence by a neigh­bor in Fitzger­ald who intro­duced him to texts that empha­sized Jew­ish con­tri­bu­tions to world civ­i­liza­tion and yet, dur­ing his years as an under­grad­u­ate, Abram refused to join a Jew­ish fra­ter­ni­ty and con­sid­ered him­self an anti-Zion­ist. Things began to change when he spent his final year of law school at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, got active in Hil­lel, and came under the influ­ence of a Recon­struc­tion­ist rabbi.

Dur­ing Abram’s Rhodes Schol­ar­ship, which had been delayed by the war, he was offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend the sum­mer of 1946 as a research assis­tant to Jus­tice Robert Jack­son, who head­ed the US team of pros­e­cu­tors at the Nurem­berg tri­als. It had a life-chang­ing impact on Abram, not the least in edu­cat­ing him about the need for the Jew­ish peo­ple to remain vig­i­lant against its would-be enemies.

What fol­lowed were a series of con­nec­tions to Jew­ish defense orga­ni­za­tions — Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, Anti-Defama­tion League — and high­ly vis­i­ble roles in bat­tling anti­semitism, speak­ing out on behalf of Sovi­et Jew­ry, and defend­ing the legit­i­ma­cy and secu­ri­ty of the state of Israel. Abram nev­er became reli­gious in the rit­u­al sense of the term, but his attach­ment to Jew­ish peo­ple­hood only grew over time.

ES: There is lit­tle on Abram as a father or hus­band, although you did men­tion briefly that he was for a time estranged from one of his sons. The book instead focus­es on the pub­lic” Mor­ris Abram. Was this a con­scious deci­sion on your part, or was it due to the lack of source mate­r­i­al or oth­er considerations?

DEL: It was very much a con­scious deci­sion. I do men­tion that his first mar­riage of thir­ty years yield­ed five chil­dren to whom he was deeply devot­ed, each of whom has been suc­cess­ful in his and her cho­sen field. I includ­ed the parts of each of his three mar­riages that impact­ed upon his career, but you are quite right that my inter­est was cen­tered upon those fac­tors that con­tributed to his pub­lic activ­i­ties, accom­plish­ments, dis­ap­point­ments, etc.

ES: Your book also says lit­tle about Abram as a lawyer who rep­re­sent­ed some of Amer­i­ca’s most impor­tant cor­po­ra­tions. His lit­i­ga­tion skills were evi­dent­ly high­ly prized. Could you com­ment on Abram the lawyer?

DEL: When Abram returned to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s law school to address an incom­ing class, he told the stu­dents that he con­sid­ered him­self a gen­er­al­ist in the law whose pri­ma­ry inter­est was in court­room lit­i­ga­tion — a spe­cial­ist, he said, only in pro­ce­dure and dra­ma.” His law part­ners in both Atlanta and New York empha­sized to me his fero­cious­ness as an advo­cate, a qual­i­ty that AJC’s David Har­ris said served him quite well in his human rights work. He was also a dogged com­peti­tor, as dis­played in lit­i­ga­tion ear­ly in his career when he took on the Geor­gia med­ical estab­lish­ment and its expen­sive insur­ance attor­neys in a mal­prac­tice case that last­ed sev­er­al years. The result was the largest judg­ment ever received for a client in DeKalb Coun­ty up to that point. A final qual­i­ty was one of supreme self-con­fi­dence that dis­played itself both inside and out­side the court­room. It was these qual­i­ties that led New York Gov­er­nor Hugh Carey to tap Abram to head the state’s More­land Commission’s inves­ti­ga­tion of cor­rup­tion in the nurs­ing home indus­try. How many lawyers could go up against Nel­son Rock­e­feller, a pop­u­lar for­mer Gov­er­nor who hap­pened to be the sit­ting Vice Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, and come out ahead?

ES: If Abram was alive today and was called upon to deliv­er a col­lege com­mence­ment address, what advice do you think he would give to the graduates?

DEL: I believe it wouldn’t be much dif­fer­ent from his inau­gur­al address at Bran­deis in the fall of 1968, when he warned of the twin dan­gers of politi­ciz­ing the uni­ver­si­ty and shout­ing down minor­i­ty points of view. He believed in the lib­er­al val­ues of free speech, respect for the diver­si­ty of view­points, and keep­ing open the paths of free inquiry, and I have lit­tle doubt that he would advise grad­u­ates not to aban­don them if they want to build a bet­ter society.

ES: Could you com­ment on the writ­ing process – was it a plea­sure or an ordeal? Are you work­ing on anoth­er book or at least con­tem­plat­ing writ­ing one? If so, could you give us a hint or two what it will be about?

DEL: This was a first effort at writ­ing a book, and I can’t think of any­thing else I have done in my career that has giv­en me more plea­sure and sat­is­fac­tion. I am now in the ear­ly stages of col­lab­o­rat­ing with a for­mer col­league at the Nation­al Endow­ment for Democ­ra­cy on a biog­ra­phy of Melvin J. Lasky, anoth­er Amer­i­can-born son of Jew­ish immi­grants who was the prin­ci­pal founder of the Con­gress for Cul­tur­al Free­dom, which was a col­lec­tion of intel­lec­tu­als, jour­nal­ists, and oth­ers that led the fight for lib­er­al democ­ra­cy around the world dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s.

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).