Morris Abram: The Man Who Unmasked the KKK and Helped Establish “One Person, One Vote”

By | Feb 12, 2015
RFK and Morris Abram

by Cecily Abram

Those who remember Morris Berthold Abram may recall his tenure as president of Brandeis University during the tumultuous years of 1968-1970. Yet many of his accomplishments during the time of the Civil Rights Movement that preceded his presidency are not widely known.

Throughout his life, Morris became the trusted adviser to five U.S. presidents—both Democratic and Republican—each seeing in him his dedication to justice and the rule of law, his commitment to civil rights and human rights and his deep interest in Jewish causes. His proudest legal accomplishments include the establishment of the historic principle “one person, one vote” and the laws that led to the unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan.

Born in 1918, Morris spent his first 16 years in rural South Georgia. Founded in 1896, Fitzgerald was a colony city for aging Union veterans to escape Northern winters. With streets named for both Union and Confederate generals, the city lies 200 miles south of Atlanta and within 15 miles of the site of Jefferson Davis’ capture. It is 83 miles from the Plains, GA farm of Jimmy Carter, and like the beloved Hill Country of Lyndon B. Johnson’s, far below the Mason Dixon Line.

Growing up in the Baptist/Protestant South, Morris had a sense of what it meant to be an “outsider.” His mother, Irene Cohen Abram, born in Quincy Illinois, was the granddaughter of Elias Eppstein, one of America’s first Reform rabbis. She was the daughter of a talented doctor, remarkable for having put his sister through medical school, graduating in 1879 before he was to get his own medical degree. His father, Sam Abram, emigrated in 1904 from Vaslui, Romania, thirty miles from the 1903 pogrom,of Kishnev, Russia. Because of Irene’s near disdain for East European immigrants, Sam abandoned his roots and Yiddish language, but kept his inherent interest in politics and the well-being of his Jewish family

As Jews, the Abram family presence in Fitzgerald was connected to the wider community as people of the Bible. The sheriff, a Southern Baptist named Elijah Dorminey was Sam Abram’s best card-playing friend,” according to Morris’s autobiography, The Day is Short. “In 1922, a representative of the Ku Klux Klan visited Fitzgerald to establish a klavern. When Dorminey asked what he believed in and he answered ‘Americanism … We’re against Niggers, Catholics and Jews,’ Dorminey told him, ‘That’s not my definition of Americanism. My best friend is Sam Abram a Jew. I’m not joining.’”

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Morris. Courtesy of the Abram estate.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Morris Abram. Courtesy of the Abram estate.

Morris’ family prized education. In lieu of sports, his talent for oration would become one of his most empowering skills. When he was eight years old, he was given the Book of Knowledge, which became the basis for school discussions and talks he would give as a guest speaker in nearby black churches. In his autobiography, Morris recalled that he “could almost in the manner of the local preacher breathe fire and brimstone.” Morris memorized lengthy passages of the Constitution, and was especially gripped by the Fourteenth Amendment, perceiving “the conflict with southern practices and institutions.”

His greatest speaking triumph at an early age came from his school essay titled “Our Shackled Railroads,” which demonstrated how badly railroad workers were treated in the U.S. “His father showed it to some of his friends in the local railroad association and they invited Morris to speak at a big convention. In Savannah, the ninety-pound orator succeeded in inciting his burly listeners to loud huzzahs and a standing ovation. ‘What… he…said was gospel truth,’” he recalled in his autobiography.

There were several Jewish families in Fitzgerald, but in hard times, a rabbi was difficult to come by. Morris “achieved minor distinction as speaker at High Holiday services and area Bar Mitzvahs,” according to his autobiography. “The boys had received no religious instructions, so the event was celebrated socially. An adolescent local boy who spoke with callow eloquence was more exotic than an unknown bearded import who might drone on at length to justify his fee.”      

Morris spent his undergraduate years at the University of Georgia, which attracted some of the state’s “best and the brightest … and non-Georgians who came to experience the deep south,” he wrote. There, “a shy young man from a small town like Fitzgerald could find himself rubbing shoulders with rich kids like Bobby Troutman, whose father was counsel to the Coca Cola magnates or the sons of Governor Talmadge.”

Further honing his speaking skills, Morris joined a debate team, choosing Phi Kappa over Demosthenian where Herman Talmadge was entrenched. A friendly rivalry existed between the societies and motivated Morris to write to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, proposing to induct him into Phi Kappa. Surprisingly, FDR accepted. Morris, along with his father and a few members, traveled to the Little White House in Warm Springs for the ceremony wherein the President of the United States was inducted into Phi Kappa.

In 1937, after completing his undergraduate degree, Morris competed to become a Rhodes Scholar. He passed the state competition but failed the regional. The reason, suggested his friend Bobby Troutman, may have been that Morris talked like a country hick. Morris spent the next year practicing his “I” as in Ike. “By the time the “competition rolled around, “I was talking like a Yankee but with the soft intonations of my region.” He would become the first Jewish Rhodes Scholar.

Morris’ accomplishment was put on hold when Hitler invaded Poland. Instead, he and other Rhodes Scholars were offered tuition scholarships to attend the University of Chicago. He received his J.D. in June,1940, and returned to Georgia to take the Bar exam. But while Morris had thought attending a top-notch law school would be preparation enough, he failed, and demanded a review. The chairman of the Bar exam board was John M. Slaton, the former Governor of Georgia, who had commuted the sentence of Leo Frank, the northern Jew whose infamous lynching created fears in the Jewish community and catalyzed the formation of the Anti-Defamation League. Though Slayton refused to reverse the “mistake,” Morris “had a quiet conversation” and learned the reason for the Governor’s actions.

Morris enlisted in the military in 1941 and earned the Legion of Merit for outstanding service by planning a conference to address shell shock and needs of returning soldiers. This was a stepping stone to his future appointments as Chairman of the New York State Moreland Commission on Nursing Home and Residential Facilities and later appointment by president Jimmy Carter as Chairman of the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems of Medicine.

After the war, Morris contacted the Rhodes Trust and enrolled at Oxford. As the Nuremberg trials were proceeding, his professor offered to call prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson, asking that Morris be placed on the staff during the Oxford summer session. His assignment was to research the trial records of Goering and others for evidence useful in the subsequent trials of Nazi industrialists. This milestone in his career would influence his later involvement during the Civil Rights Movement and his focus on human rights.

Corretta Scott King-Morris Abram

Morris Abram and Corretta Scott King. Courtesy of the Abram estate.

Morris returned to Atlanta in 1948 and joined a law practice with some of the best attorneys in the city, though he encountered his religion as a barrier to being hired by the more prestigious law firms. Prejudice continued in Atlanta and surfaced when The Temple was bombed in 1958. The city united under the leadership of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild and Mayor William B. Hartsfield. As Janice Rothschild Blumberg stated, “It was the bomb that healed.”

In the late 1940’s, Morris served as counsel to the Anti-Defamation League Regional Director, Alex Miller drafting laws and co-authoring a pamphlet on how to curb the Ku Klux Klan. “Five Southern States and 53 cities, adopted two… laws,” he writes, “prohibiting the wearing of masks in public places and burning of crosses… except with permission of the property owner.” These were laws that ended fear by intimidation in our country.

In 1954, Morris ran for congress from the Fifth District Fulton County/Atlanta. He won the popular vote but lost the election as the County Unit System “perpetuated segregationists’ rule by giving disproportionate weight to rural voters.”

During the 1960 presidential campaign, JFK’s headquarters called Morris asking him to help Atlanta’s Mayor William B. Hartsfield obtain a release from jail for Martin Luther King, Jr. and a number of young supporters who were arrested for trying to integrate the Magnolia Room dining-facility of Rich’s department store. It was a “promised day with Daddy” for young daughter Annie who spent many hours while they tried to persuade King who insisted “Jail not bail.” Finally, King agreed to leave—only to land in Reidsville State prison for breach of parole for a driving law violation. In Reidsville, King’s life was endangered.

The Kennedy headquarters were notified, which resulted in the call by Robert Kennedy for release and another from JFK to Coretta Scott King giving support. She happened to be on her way with Martin Luther King, Sr. to Abram’s office on a family matter. The Kennedy supporters knew of their visit and prevailed upon Morris to ask Daddy King to get his son’s endorsement of Kennedy in the upcoming election.

Daddy King hesitated, unsure of his own commitment; Kennedy was a Catholic. He reconsidered quickly and said: “Have the press at Ebenezer Baptist Church next Sunday I’ll tell everybody that because of what the Kennedys have done for my son, I’m going to deliver them a basket full of votes.” Kennedy won by a 100,000-vote margin.

President Kennedy appointed Morris as the first General Counsel for the Peace Corps in 1961. Morris also served on the UN Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities drafting a global treaty ICERD to end segregation and hate groups. Morris helped start the first large, middle-income housing project open to black families in Atlanta, and took a UN delegation to see first hand how some blacks were already moving into the promised dream of America, contrary to world press.

Over a period of 14 years, Morris brought a string of cases that culminated in the 1963 Supreme Court case proving the County Unit System of Georgia unconstitutional. A year after his 1962 move to NY to join the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton, and Garrison, he was called to argue Gray vs. Sanders. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, joined in his trial debut, arguing amicus curiae for the government. March 18, 1963, the Court handed down its 8-1 landmark decision that established the principle “one person, one vote”

In 1963, Morris was one of 100 lawyers assembled by JFK, creating Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. There he met LBJ, and was moved by the future president’s words: “What kind of a country is this that a man can die in a foxhole and can’t get a hamburger in a public restaurant?”

JFK-Morris Abram

President John F. Kennedy and Morris Abram. Courtesy of the Abram estate.

Morris represented the first case for Lawyers for Civil Rights Under the Law. “Five youths, black and white… (were) arrested in a voter registration campaign, and … held without bail under a… state sedition statute that carried capital penalty in Americus, GA” in 1963 when Jimmy Carter was state senator representing Sumter county.

That same year, Morris became the youngest president of the American Jewish Committee. An early decision was to address Jewish deicide in the Catholic liturgy with the Vatican. He and others representing AJC arranged an audience with Pope Paul VI in Rome. The Pope’s response indicated his support of Cardinal Spellman’s word as ‘absurd’ “that Jews should be held responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.” Two years later, the Vatican issued the historic Nostra Aetate.

When Lyndon Johnson became president, he appointed Morris US Representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 1965, he became the co-chairman of Planning for the White House Conference on Civil Rights and the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity, helping shape the War on Poverty.

Morris’ dream was to become president of Brandeis University. Past president Abram Sachar retained unusual influence. Just months after his 1968 installation, African American students took over Ford Hall with demands for change. Dialogue on campus was key to resolution, not the police. Though the faculty approved an African and Afro-American Department, Morris became disillusioned with academia, resigned his position in 1970 and returned to his NY law practice.

In 1973, at the age of 55, Morris was diagnosed with acute myelocytic leukemia, not expected to live beyond 60 days.  Most, after hearing such news, tend to keep this private. Not Morris. He phoned an executive of the American Jewish Committee and within a week, was asked to do an oral history. Eli N. Evans was assigned for what would become well over a year of taped interviews. Many began with a bowl of grits to jog Morris’ memory.

His will to get through to another session and then to another with Eli became part of his personal plan for recovery and gave him the stamina for the grueling regimen that led to remission. Based on these interviews, Morris published his 1982 autobiography, The Day is Short. But his career was far from over. Throughout his treatment for cancer, Morris continued to practice law and serve as chairman of the Field Foundation and United Negro College Fund. His cancer went into remission for more than 20 years. During this time, he became the chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, founder of UN Watch and served three more presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush as Ambassador U.S. Permanent Representative to The UN, Geneva.

As a 2000 New York Times paid obituary noted, he would be remembered as “an eloquent advocate for Jewish interests and causes and … a champion of the oppressed … A brilliant lawyer and diplomat with heartfelt convictions and principles, Morris changed the course of human history in the 20th century in education, law, civil rights and human rights, at home and abroad. (He was) a tireless warrior against the evils of anti-Semitism, racism and all forms of intolerance.”

This essay is excerpted from a 2014 paper delivered by Cecily Abram, niece of Morris Abram, at the annual meeting of the Southern Jewish Historical Society. The speech was entitled “Stepping Stones from Georgia to Geneva: Morris Abram and His Ties to Five Presidents.” Unless otherwise noted, quotes are edited excerpts from the autobiography The Day is Short. With copyright permission, Abram Estate. Outlets wishing to republish all or part of this text must first get permission from Moment Magazine.

2 thoughts on “Morris Abram: The Man Who Unmasked the KKK and Helped Establish “One Person, One Vote”

  1. Diana a. says:

    Wonderful article and great story. Would love to see a movie version; would counteract the Judenrein accounting of the movie Selma.

  2. RHS Rasel says:

    Morris Abraham was a great man. I knew a lot new information about him from this site. Thanks for such kind of writing

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