Morris B. Abram (1918-2000), one of the unsung heroes of the U.S. civil-rights movement, would have turned 99 years old today. In the early 1950s, the Atlanta attorney authored anti-KKK legislation that was adopted by five Southern states. Several years earlier, Abram began a legal battle to end a voting system in his native state of Georgia that entrenched legal segregation by disenfranchising black voters. He achieved victory 14 years later when the U.S. Supreme Court established as a constitutional principle the standard of “one man, one vote.”
During the 1960 presidential campaign, Abram became a key intermediary between candidate John F. Kennedy and authorities in Atlanta to get the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. released from prison following a sit-in he led at the city’s largest department store. That event was recalled years later by King’s father in a letter to U.S. senators endorsing President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Abram to serve on the United States Civil Rights Commission. “From the time he arrived in Atlanta in 1948,” Rev. King, Sr. wrote, “Morris Abram was in the forefront of the public battle against racial discrimination.”
Abram was also a champion of international human rights, from his leadership in the struggle to liberate Soviet Jewry in the 1980s as the chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry to his service as permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva under President George H.W. Bush. Shortly after that experience, he founded UN Watch, an international NGO that effectively exposes that body’s relentless bullying of the democratic state of Israel while refusing to criticize regimes around the world that routinely violate the human rights of their own people.
And yet, outside the American Jewish community in which he played leadership roles with the American Jewish Committee during the 1960s and the Conference of Presidents two decades later, Abram is barely remembered. Why this is so reveals much less about his accomplishments in the field of civil rights than in the turn taken by its self-appointed spokesmen and their adherents following the movement’s heyday in the 1960s.
In 1965, at a time when the traditional civil-rights leadership was being challenged from within, Abram was asked by President Lyndon Johnson to co-chair the planning session for a White House Conference on Civil Rights. The purpose of the conference was to develop ways of meeting the challenge of enabling black people to move from opportunity to achievement. The conference’s organizers included such revered figures as A. Philip Randolph, who served as its honorary chairman, and longtime NAACP President Roy Wilkins.
In his autobiography, published in 1982, Abram recalled how radical black nationalists who saw themselves as the new leaders of the movement viewed the conference as an opportunity to attack the government and to heap scorn upon Randolph, Wilkins, and other members of the “old guard.” These self-styled new leaders were particularly hostile to Daniel P. Moynihan, author of a recent Labor Department study identifying the pathologies afflicting the black family as a major stumbling block to social and economic progress.
Abram was troubled by the fact that it took his persistent intervention to get the White House to invite the report’s author to the planning session in the face of resistance from many black leaders. This was particularly unsettling because the call for the conference had come from an address written largely by Moynihan that President Johnson had delivered at Howard University earlier that year. “This was my first experience with raw black militance,” Abram wrote, “my wound from black colleagues in the struggle for racial equality in which I had been engaged for 20 years.”
Abram would suffer a second wound shortly after assuming the presidency of Brandeis University, where he succeeded its founding president, Abram Sachar, in September 1968. Only four months into his tenure, a group of black students began an 11-day occupation of the building housing the university’s central communications center, setting forth a list of “non-negotiable” demands. They included student control over the selection of the chairman, faculty, and curriculum of a new African-American-studies department, whose creation had been agreed to by President Sachar. Abram was praised in the national media for not calling in law enforcement, as had occurred recently at Columbia and Harvard. Still, his frustration with the politicization of the university, along with some unforced errors of his own that alienated both students and faculty, led him to seek an early exit, which he took the following year.
One year after stepping down from Brandeis, Abram took over the chairmanship of the United Negro College Fund, a position he would hold for nine years.
In a letter to The New York Times in 1981, Abram challenged the direction in which the civil-rights movement by then had moved. After noting his support for affirmative action as an effort designed to reach out broadly to disadvantaged persons on behalf of equality of opportunity, he noted that the policy had become “skewed into a program of quotas, goals, and timetables,” to further equality of result, a turn that “has been grafted into our conscience and consciousness by imaginative legal craftsmanship.”
The fundamental principle of addressing the problem of discrimination, he contended, is that a person should be treated as an individual, “with due regard for his or her distinctive abilities and character.” By contrast, the practice of preferential treatment deals with that person “as a member of a group with a person’s merit counting for little or nothing as compared to one’s gender or skin color.” Furthermore, insofar as the policies of preferential treatment are aimed at the skilled, the educated, and the middle-class, “they leave those in direct need in the pit.”
Abram also took on, prophetically, the argument that these policies should be regarded as temporary:
An ethnic spoils system, once introduced, is bound to become entrenched and requires a suspension of the Fourteenth Amendment, a step no less hazardous than the suspension for a time of free speech and press.
In a handwritten note to a relative he attached to the letter after it was published in the Times, Abram pointed out that it marked his departure “from the main thrust of the civil-rights establishment.” Little wonder, therefore, that his nomination to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights two years later would be so vigorously opposed by that establishment.
As Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor have documented with respect to college admissions, preferential-treatment policies have frequently proved detrimental precisely to those they were intended to benefit by undermining intellectual self-confidence, derailing career aspirations, and stigmatizing them as otherwise unworthy of admission. In their 2012 study titled Mismatch, they write that a system that hurts the very people it is supposed to help “is both morally and logically indefensible.”
Although Abram would hardly have been surprised by these findings, his opposition to an “ethnic spoils system” was grounded less in its practical effects than in deeply felt principles. When Thurgood Marshall argued the school-desegregation cases in the early 1950s, he pointed out, the objective was “to remove the race line from our governmental system.” The movement away from a color-blind interpretation of the Constitution, he argued, was precisely what had led to the Supreme Court decision during WWII to uphold the internment of every citizen of Japanese ancestry.
When Morris Abram applied for admission to the New York Bar Association after moving his family from Atlanta in 1962, he was required to state his understanding of the foundational principles of the U.S. government. In his autobiography, published two decades later, he repeated his response:
While the government legislates and administers generally by representative majorities, not even these may affect certain rights of the people, including those to equal protection and due process of law. … I conceive ours as a government designed to achieve and safeguard the maximum possible liberty of conscience, expression, and human effort. This liberty is contained within the framework of law which I regard as the source of liberty for man living in society.
“Obviously,” he added, “I would give the same response today.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.