Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle Against Racial and Religious Discrimination
Potomac Books, 2019, 320 pp., $34.95
If a man’s fame could be judged by the company he kept or the causes he supported, Morris B. Abram’s place among the pantheon of the “Greatest Generation” would be secure. He was present at Nuremberg in 1946, assisting Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson in the U.S. prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Back home in Georgia, he fought a 14-year legal battle to dismantle the state’s discriminatory voting system, paving the way for the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” ruling in Gray v. Sanders (1963). He helped negotiate the release of Martin Luther King, Jr. from a Georgia jail in 1960, playing middleman with the Kennedy campaign; later, Presidents Johnson and Reagan would tap him for major civil rights positions. As President of the American Jewish Committee, he negotiated at the Vatican with Pope Paul VI, seeking warmer ties between Jews and the Catholic Church; at the United Nations in 1991, he helped overturn the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution, under the marching orders of one John Bolton.
Why, then, has the name of Morris B. Abram largely been forgotten? This is the question that runs implicitly through David E. Lowe’s admiring biography Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle Against Racial and Religious Discrimination. In tracing the contours of this remarkable man’s life, several answers present themselves. One is that Abram, for all his proximity to power, was in crucial respects a man apart: a Jew among WASPs, a Southerner among Northerners, whose efforts were applauded by the powers-that-be but rarely rewarded to the extent he deserved. Another answer is that Abram’s career followed an itinerant trajectory, with short stints and odd jobs—as President of Brandeis University, or as General Counsel of the Peace Corps—interrupting his more sustained achievements in law and activism.
Perhaps most of all, though, Abram was forgotten because his thinking developed in ways that made him decidedly unfashionable. A crusading lawyer of the early civil rights period, Abram turned into a critic of affirmative action, bemoaning the “social engineers” who extended civil rights law past its proper domain. An avowed believer in King’s colorblind ideal, he became a vocal critic of the New Left black nationalism that followed in its wake. A true believer in human rights, he ended his career as a pugnacious critic of the institutions that claimed to uphold them, founding UN Watch to monitor the hypocrisies of the UN, particularly its single-minded scrutiny of Israel.
In Lowe’s telling, Abram’s evolution followed naturally from his first principles, consistently held to but refined by experience. In political terms, this amounted to a rightward drift that cost him old allies and complicated his legacy after death. Today, one imagines he would be homeless in either of our major parties. Neither a Democratic Party that now demands purity tests on busing, treating every development of the civil rights revolution as an unqualified good, nor a Donald Trump-led Republican Party, whose leading lights now question the wisdom of the Civil Rights Act in the first place, would confidently command his loyalties.
Yet it is precisely for this reason that Morris Abram deserves our attention. If Abram was “touched with fire” in his youthful pursuit of justice, to borrow the book’s epitaph from Oliver Wendell Holmes, he was also tempered by experience, trained to see how well-intentioned causes can sometimes go off course. For our age of ideological certitude, Abram’s example of principle and prudence is one worth heeding.
Morris Abram was born in 1918 in Fitzgerald, Georgia, a town founded three decades after the Civil War as a conscious monument to reconciliation. With streets conspicuously named for both Confederate and Union officers, and the Lee-Grant Hotel at its center, Fitzgerald was nonetheless typically Southern in its deep segregation. For Abram, it provided an early formation in the promise and limits of America’s melting pot.
Abram’s father had come to America fleeing a pogrom in Chisinau, in present-day Moldova; his mother was descended from one of America’s first Reform rabbis. But growing up in the South, Lowe suggests, Abram suppressed his Jewish identity by both choice and habit. From his mother’s side, Lowe writes, Abram internalized the idea that “Jews are not a distinct people;” a friend of the Abram family recalls that they sought to blend into the town’s Protestant establishment but “were never really accepted.” For Abram, this awareness of his outsider status grew over time, as encounters with prejudice—an anti-Semitic eighth-grade teacher, a “Jews need not apply” attitude from top law firms—gradually moved him to embrace his Jewish identity, not recoil from it.
At times, Touched with Fire traces this development in a perfunctory manner, lacking the psychological texture of the best biographies. Some episodes cry out for deeper treatment: Abram’s legal work at Nuremberg, for example, is granted barely two pages; that this experience shaped him profoundly is more declared than developed. Too often, Touched with Fire resembles a brisk recitation of incidents and accomplishments, rushing through formative events that a more curious biographer might have dwelt on. Lowe writes parenthetically, for instance, of a heated college debate between Abram and Herman Talmadge, son of the staunch segregationist governor of Georgia (and future governor himself), which commenced a lifelong political rivalry that unexpectedly turned to friendship later in life. This latter detail is never developed, their full relationship never explored.
Still, Abram’s own tale gains in gravitas as it is told, alongside the scale of his ambitions. Two turning points in particular bear mention.
The first is Abram’s long legal quest, from 1949 to 1963, to overturn Georgia’s county unit voting system—an electoral regime which disproportionately benefited the state’s small, rural, whiter counties. With a series of lawsuits chipping away at the system, Abram emerged as both a moral crusader and a canny legal operator. He could summon the spirit of his cause with a voice of moral clarity and homespun wisdom, making pleas for common-sense interpretations of the law: “I think a qualified voter is a qualified voter…and a vote, is a vote, is a vote,” he declared before the Supreme Court. At other moments, he reached for Biblical metaphors, comparing Georgia’s wholesale disenfranchisement of black voters to Herod’s slaughter of the innocents— both exercises in group punishment at the expense of individual rights.
At the same time, Abram was a savvy political player, not merely a starry-eyed idealist. Throughout Touched With Fire, Lowe ably shows how legal victories do not happen through mere force of moral suasion, but as campaigns, carefully coordinated and stage-managed with other stakeholders. For Abram, that meant enlisting sympathetic plaintiffs who could appear apolitical, even if the suits’ original sponsors were politicians; it meant working hand-in-hand with Atlanta mayor William Hartsfield, who brought the city’s business community on board; it meant, in one instance, driving fifty miles outside Atlanta on a Saturday to personally serve a lawsuit to a federal judge. Hard-headed in his tactics and acutely aware of how the case could make his own reputation, Abram was ever the happy warrior. “I am a generalist in law, and a specialist only in procedure and drama,” he once declared, citing Machiavelli and Clausewitz as personal inspirations. And his flair for the dramatic paid off: by the time Gray v. Sanders came to the Supreme Court, Bobby Kennedy had taken an interest, even arguing part of the case alongside Abram (who was reluctant to share the spotlight). The Court finally ruled in their favor, building on a precedent from Tennessee the previous year; as Hartsfield put it, it was “the biggest thing to hit Georgia since Sherman.”
The second major turning point for Abram came five years later, when he was inaugurated President of Brandeis University. It was a dream job, for which he had impeccable credentials; in addition to his legal work, Abram had served as President of the American Jewish Committee (1963-1968), co-chair of LBJ’s White House Conference on Civil Rights (1965), and U.S. Representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights. But he left Brandeis less than two years later with his tail between his legs, chased out by activists who dubbed him a “fork-tongued Georgia cracker.”
At the heart of the Brandeis chapter, the book’s most dramatic, is a campus crisis that erupted in January 1969, when a group of black activists seized control of one of the main university buildings. Their demands for greater minority representation would soon ripple across other universities, and Abram had the unenviable task of leading Brandeis’s response after three months on the job. In theory sympathetic to the protesters’ grievances, Abram was nonetheless offended by their violent tactics and the notion of students—accompanied, he thought, by outside Black Panther elements—dictating curriculum changes to the faculty. A few years earlier, in the White House job, Abram had tried to defend Daniel Patrick Moynihan against the criticism of New Left black leaders, who considered his famous report on the black family to be an exercise in condescending white paternalism; at Brandeis, the activists came after Abram in similar terms.
Ultimately, Abram managed to defuse the crisis without calling in the police, although he resented his agreement to grant amnesty to students who had damaged property. In any event, the experience so disillusioned Abram that he made a speedy exit from Brandeis the following year.
And for the final three decades of his life, Abram seemed to embody Irving Kristol’s famous definition of a neoconservative: “a liberal mugged by reality.” Initially supportive of Jimmy Carter, whose entrance into Georgia politics was facilitated by Abram’s own legal achievements, he defected to Ronald Reagan with a public endorsement in 1980. A self-declared “anti-Zionist” in his youth, he spent his final years vocally championing the cause of Israel, tangling with Soviet delegations over the exodus rights of refuseniks, and founding UN Watch in Geneva to blow the whistle on the UN’s human rights hypocrisy. A sparring partner of William F. Buckley in the 1960s, he reappeared on his show in 1982 as a likeminded guest, criticizing affirmative action quotas and lamenting that the civil rights movement “now wants racial preferences.”
By the time of his death in 2000, at the age of 81, Morris Abram had made his mark across the fields of law, politics, human rights, and academe. He died beloved, but not widely known. His achievements defied easy categorization, thanks to both his changing political affiliations and the sheer manifold diversity of the causes he supported—including the scrutiny of New York’s exploitative nursing home industry in the mid-1970s, and a bioethics position under President Carter. Along the way, he defied a serious leukemia diagnosis, emerging cancer-free in 1979 after six years of grueling treatment, and left behind five children, nine grandchildren, and three marriages.
How to take the measure of such a man? It helps, perhaps, to recall some wisdom from Abram himself, delivered at an Emory University commencement in 1972: “Most men are not as good as they pretend to be, nor as bad as their enemies paint them. No man is always truthful, especially to himself, and no man lies all the time to himself.”
Abram had his faults, and Lowe, to his credit as a biographer, is unafraid to mention them. In his private life, he was unfaithful to his first wife; in his public life, he evinced a certain hyperbole and arrogance alongside his considerable achievements. He did not always act on principle: a high-ticket lawyer, he had no compunction in assisting a Big Law firm (Cravath, Swain & Moore) in fighting anti-discrimination law that he had previously fought to implement. (Most incensed at Abram’s apparent hypocrisy in the Cravath case was the other side’s counsel, Alan Dershowitz—who has not lately crowned himself in glory as a paragon of principle.) For Lowe, these are minor faults in the grand sweep of a worthy life. But in today’s polarized climate, there are more sweeping ways of critiquing Abram from right and left.
For the left, of course, he could be just another neocon—a man who drifted rightward because he could not reckon with what was truly needed to equalize racial relations, a squish who retreated to other causes like Israel as soon as he drew fire from activists at the vanguard. Today’s right, meanwhile, could see the young Abram as a naïf—an idealistic crusader for equality, who could not envision how the movement’s internal logic would turn against him in the end. This, one suspects, might be the view of someone like Christopher Caldwell, whose controversial Age of Entitlement traces virtually all the ills of post-60s America to the overreach of the Civil Rights Act, and implicitly gestures toward rejecting it root and branch.
But for those of us unmoved by either of these simplistic narratives, there is another way to look at Abram—one more attuned to the nuances, and virtues, of his political thought.
He believed in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes—and he held fast to this distinction even when it became fashionable to elide it. When he saw the injustice of Jim Crow disenfranchising black voters en masse, he worked to overturn it; when he worried that affirmative action was instituting a countervailing system of racial preference, he sounded the alarm bell.
He believed in subsidiarity, distinguishing between the proper roles of local, state, and national government. “The duty of the Federal government is to help the people do things together that would not be done so well individually,” Abram wrote sensibly, rejecting both the notion that the Federal government had no role to play in guaranteeing fair play and the notion that it was the appropriate actor to remedy every wrong.
He believed in civility, even if it cost him political advantage. As one friend recalled of a failed congressional race, “Morris was used to a certain civility in exchanges. He could not compete in that realm of someone who would lack any courtesy and who would not let him talk without interrupting him.”
He was a pluralist in theory and practice, committed to the expression of opposing views and the free contestation of ideas. In an essay on extremism, he critiqued those on “left and right, [who] are convinced that the end justifies the means”; in his inaugural address at Brandeis, he insisted, “I do not believe in the academy as well as in society as a whole, the majority has the right to stifle the voice of the minority.”
He did not believe in an arc of history bending inexorably toward justice; he knew that it had to be bent by active effort, and he was conscious, at the same time, that such change could have adverse side effects that were not to be taken lightly.
Morris Abram, in short, was neither a doctrinaire conservative nor a progressive. He was a good liberal, in the old-fashioned sense—a man capable of balancing theory and practice, a man who sought a healthy balance between the free exercise of individual rights and the need to ensure a level playing field. He was strong in his convictions but never smug in the assertion that wisdom was his alone, and he reserved the right to adjust his views based on the evidence. In that regard, it is worth quoting his Brandeis address at greater length:
I know that it has become fashionable in some liberal political circles to downgrade the liberal political creed. I am willing to examine and reexamine every substantive opinion, including those to which I am most committed. However, I am not prepared to reject the liberal methodology of fair play, civil liberty, and due process as the only way in which a civilized society can pursue truth, prevent the encrustation of error, and insure the fulfillment of one’s creative talents and inclinations.
Today, it hardly needs underscoring, Abram’s liberal ethos has become more unfashionable than ever. To read David Lowe’s biography is to wish that it were not so—and to hope that our politics may one day be touched with the fire of his example again.