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 Discrimination, and 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.