Seventeen months in the president's chair: Morris Abram, black-Jewish relations and the anatomy of a failed presidency.

Author:Krasner, Jonathan
Position:P. 27-52 - Biography
 
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By virtually all accounts, Morris Berthold Abram was an inspired choice to lead Brandeis University when its founding president, Abram L. Sachar, announced his retirement in 1967. A Rhodes Scholar and civil rights lawyer, Abram served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as the first general counsel to the Peace Corps, and the United States representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. What is more, he had stature in the Jewish community as the youngest national president of the American Jewish Committee. Abram's selection was lauded by faculty members, donors, and Jewish community leaders alike, and his inauguration, in October 1968, was celebrated with great fanfare. A mere seventeen months later, however, Abram abruptly resigned, leaving the university adrift during one of the most tumultuous periods in its history.

Abram's tenure coincided with a season of student unrest at American universities, much of it propelled by a radicalized civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. At Brandeis, the new president had barely established himself when he was confronted by a black student takeover of a central administration and communications complex. The eleven day occupation of Ford and Sydeman Halls, which caught Abram and most of the campus by surprise, threatened to paralyze his young administration and tear the community apart. Even after the immediate crisis was resolved, student-administration relations remained tense and threatened to explode in a broad-based show of student defiance.

When Abram announced his departure, in February 1970, the conventional wisdom was that he was fleeing a damaged presidency of an unruly campus. Abram insisted that his resignation was occasioned by his decision to jump into the contest for the Democratic nomination in that year's New York State Senate race. But even before his short-lived campaign fizzled, his explanation failed to satisfy many.

Abram was certainly looking for an escape hatch. But the impetus for his departure was more complicated than it first appeared. In fact, Abram emerged from the Ford Hall incident relatively unscathed. He managed to defuse the crisis while keeping his various constituencies united. Abram's refusal to call in the local police to forcibly remove the demonstrators distinguished him from other university presidents in similar predicaments, and was widely hailed at the time. Yet, in spite of the plaudits, the occupation left Abram feeling embittered and even betrayed. This civil rights activist who fought successfully to overturn the State of Georgia's discriminatory electoral system was hardly a racist "cracker" (1) as the protesters alleged. Nonetheless, he was incapable of finding common ground with the African American occupiers and their white sympathizers. Abram's palpable frustration and imperious demeanor poisoned his subsequent relationship with students and faculty.

The Ford Hall crisis is worthy of attention because it sheds light on the political metamorphosis of a prominent American Jewish leader from a Southern liberal voting rights activist to a neo-conservative opponent of affirmative action. Abram's transformation is fascinating in part because it seems to capture a more general Jewish disillusionment with the direction and tenor of the civil rights movement in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. An exploration of Abram's failed presidency also contributes to our understanding of late-19 60s campus radicalism, the deterioration of black-Jewish relations, and the early history of Brandeis University, which was only twenty years old when Abram took the reins.

"I Was Wholly at Odds with the Life Around Me."

"Growing up" in the rural south, Morris Abram admitted, "I was wholly at odds with the life around me." Born in Fitzgerald, Georgia, on June 19, 1918, the second of four children, Abram was raised in a family of limited financial means but an almost religious belief in the value of secular education, especially for boys. Abram fulfilled these expectations, not only by earning top grades at the University of Georgia, but also by attending Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and earning a law degree from the University of Chicago. Abram's father, Sam, a Romanian immigrant, was a struggling shopkeeper in the poor part of town who sold work clothes and boots to black tenant farmers and railroad workers. His mother, Irene, was an educated woman with unrealized aspirations to emulate her father and aunt and become a physician. She was the granddaughter of an Alsatian-born rabbi, Elias Eppstein, one of the first ordained rabbis to immigrate to the United States, shortly after the revolutions of 1848. Morris was a bookish and quiet boy, a loner who devoured the non-fiction section of the local public library. (2)

Abram grew up feeling ambivalent about his Judaism. There were few Jews in Fitzgerald, and young Morris felt "marked as an outsider" by his failure to attend Sunday school and refusal to participate in daily public school prayers. With the closest Reform synagogue ninety miles away, in Albany, Georgia, the Abram family did not attend services and Morris never had a bar mitzvah. The Judaism that was observed in the Abram home deemphasized Jewish distinctiveness and seemed to be ritually impoverished and drained of warmth. (3)

Casting a long shadow on the southern Jewish landscape of Abram's childhood was the Leo Frank lynching, which occurred in Marietta, Georgia, three years before Morris was born. Two months later, members of the lynching party were involved in a huge cross burning on Stone Mountain, marking the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. "From whispered accounts of the story, I could tell that in the 1920s my parents and their Jewish friends were still unnerved by the fate of Leo Frank," Abram recalled. "As a young man I felt the intense need to tread cautiously where Southern passions might be aroused." (4)

Though the Frank lynching terrorized the Jewish community, it was an isolated incident. By contrast, over 3,000 African Americans were lynched in the South between 1880 and 1930, with over 450 victims in Georgia alone. Even so, Abram's sense of being an outsider did not induce him to identify with his black neighbors or even question the justice of their circumstances prior to entering university. "Segregation was simply an accepted fact," he recalled. Indeed, so conventional were Abram's views that when, at the age of fourteen, he was invited to preach in a black Baptist church, his theme was: "The South, a Friend of the Negro." (5)

It was only at the University of Georgia that Abram was confronted with dissenting voices on the fairness and rationality of segregation, and then almost exclusively "from some New York Jewish quarter on campus." Such subversive talk initially made Abram anxious, fearing that it would fan the flames of antisemitism. But it also appears to have encouraged him, for the first time, to set aside conventional wisdom and think through the issue on his own. His epiphany came during a school break, while tending his father's store. It was harvest season, and the street outside was crowded with tenant farmers and field hands, blacks and whites. As Abram "looked over the sea of ragged, unwashed, illiterate folk," he found himself testing his basic assumptions about segregation. It occurred to him that he had as little in common with the "rednecks" as he did with the "backwoods Negroes." Why, he wondered, did the social unacceptability of some whites not redound upon the race as a whole, whereas with blacks, "why must all be acceptable before any are acceptable?" He forced himself to admit that nothing in his experience could justify this blatant double standard. (6)

His newfound convictions also had obvious implications for his personal identity struggle: "I probably realized at the time that I was identifying with the blacks, the implicit thrust of my question also being: 'Why should all Jews be acceptable before any are accepted--or even more to the point, why are all Jews held responsible for the conduct of some?'" (7)

Abram looked back upon this revelation as a turning point that cemented his fealty to liberalism. From Abram's perspective, the essence of liberalism was the safeguarding of individual freedom and legal equality. These principles led inexorably to his protracted legal struggle to invalidate Georgia's discriminatory electoral system. The county unit system that had governed the state's Democratic primary process since 1917 assigned disproportionate weight to rural over urban counties. Because black registration was concentrated in the cities, and Georgia was essentially a one-party Democratic state, the scheme systematically disenfranchised African American voters. The urban counties were also comparatively more progressive. Abram's later failed Congressional bid in 1954 was, in part, emblematic of a system that rewarded the most reactionary candidates. (8)

Abram's first legal challenge to the county unit system was filed in 1950. But his "one man one vote" argument was dodged by a Supreme Court under the influence of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who warned his colleagues not to enter into the "political thicket," lest they damage the Court as an institution. By the early 1960s, however, changes in the Court's composition rendered it far more amenable to intervention in reapportionment cases. The stage was set in the landmark 1962 Baker v. Carr decision which circumscribed the "political question doctrine," cherished by Frankfurter, and found that the federal courts had the jurisdiction to rule in legislative redistricting cases. The following year, Abram, joined by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, argued in front of the Supreme Court for the unconstitutionality of Georgia's county unit system in Sanders v. Gray. By an 8-1 margin, the Court struck down the electoral system under the Fourteenth...

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