Morris B. Abram
Delivered to the Anti-Defamation League
Atlanta, October 1999
It was Abe Foxman’s thoughtful suggestion that I speak in Atlanta on the great changes in attitudes which have occurred from my arrival to practice law on Peachtree Street in 1948 until today.
Preparation for these remarks have brought memories, of course, but a great deal of regret – even shame – and some pride. You will understand these emotions, I think, and a great deal of the material will be in anecdotal form, perhaps the most suitable way to present it.
It all begins in a small South Georgia town, two hundred miles from here; Fitzgerald, established in 1896 as a colony town by Union veterans of the Civil War. These were soon joined by others from Confederate ranks – so that the town had street names for Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant and there was even a Stonewall Jackson street and, God forbid, a street named for General Sherman.
The town was sufficiently divided so that on May 30th we celebrated National Memorial Day with the Northerners making motoring tours to Andersonville, thirty miles away, to weep for their dead, and to damn the Southerners for their mass cruelties at that terrible camp where 30,000 Northern veterans were once imprisoned and many died. Southerners observed a separate Memorial Day on April 30th.
The “House” of which Lincoln has spoken had been at war, it was still divided; the White and Black issue from my birth in 1918 until the late 1960s was fairly entrenched. Even in this town established by Northern veterans, there were three primary schools and a high school, all of which were fairly modern, but exclusively for White children, and a ramshackle old primary school for Blacks, but no high school until later. A brick high school was built, not by public funds, but by the generosity of Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears Roebuck.
There was no integrated eatery, or assembly, or praying place in the whole town.
Now, the astonishing fact is that I was unaware of these things and, maybe, I should say, I accepted them. I didn’t think they were strange; they seemed to be normal and I was aware of little protest from the Blacks. Indeed, Booker T. Washington, described in the Encyclopedia Britannica as “the Negro educator and reformer” and as “the most influential spokesman for the American Negro”, had accepted not only the fact but the wisdom of segregation. To be sure, there’s also another point of view expressed by Professor W.E.B. Dubois of Atlanta University, but that was a minority point of view. For the decent White and Black masses, the words and teachings of Booker T. Washington were gospel.
I used these words of Washington myself during my College years when I was asked to speak – as a Jew – to the largest Black church in Fitzgerald. To this attractive and best-dressed congregation I repeated Washington’s words which had drawn such recognition and praise at his Cotton States Expositions appearance in Atlanta in 1895. There he had said “In all things social, we shall be as separate as the fingers of the hand; but joined together in one hand to do the common purpose.”
Even as I moved into early manhood, neither I, nor for that matter, my most admired contemporaries at the University of Georgia, made the Negroes’ plight our cause.
In 1937, a Black scholar wrote to our university law school class, asking that we petition for his admittance. He wrote us that he was even willing “to sit in the rear of the class”. The best of our class who was later educated in a great Eastern University said “Only if he also agrees to step aside on the sidewalk when we meet.”
Of course, the wishes of the student body were totally irrelevant as the law was clear, and prevailed only much later, when a firm court order opened the university to Blacks.
The prejudice against Blacks was not the only social and political affliction in my times. The Protestant South was firmly anti-Catholic. In 1928, when Al Smith was a Democratic nominee for President, he was anathema to most of my father’s friends. And strange as it may seem, the Black churches held similar suspicions of Catholics up until the 1960s.
In the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy’s headquarters called me one Saturday in October to ask if I could persuade and help the Mayor of Atlanta, William B. Hartsfield, obtain the release from jail of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a number of his young supporters who had sat down in the prestigious Magnolia dining-room of Rich’s department store, strictly forbidden by custom and law. Hartsfield and I (and my 9-year old daughter spending the day with me) spent 12 hours mostly trying to persuade Martin to leave jail, submitting to bail. Martin’s cry was “Jail not bail.” Finally, at midnight, Martin was persuaded to leave jail – only to land in the State prison for breach of a parole based on a driving law violation. This prompted a call from Robert Kennedy which got him released.
A few days thereafter, Martin Luther King, Sr. “Daddy King” came to my office to represent him on a family issue. The Kennedy headquarters knowing of this visit, asked me to ask Daddy King to obtain Martin’s endorsement of John Kennedy in the close upcoming election.
“He can’t do that” Daddy replied. “Martin heads a tax exempt outfit.” Then I replied, “Why don’t you endorse Kennedy? The public will not know the difference.” Daddy King gave me a quick and stern answer: “I can’t, because I’m a Southern Baptist and Kennedy is a Roman Catholic”.
“Daddy”, I challenged, “that’s unworthy of you”. Instantaneously, Daddy agreed saying, “Have the press at Ebenizer 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.”
While we are discussing the variants of religious experience, let me tell you that Christian fundamentalists may also fit into the United House.
My father was a Romanian immigrant to Fitzgerald. His best set-back playing friend was Sheriff Elisha Dorminey, a foot washing, gospel singing Southern Baptist who seldom missed a church gathering.
In 1922, a representative of the Ku Klux Klan visited Fitzgerald to establish a klavern there, offering Sheriff Dorminey the first membership.
Dorminey asked the Klansman “What do you believe in?” He answered “Americanism.” The Sheriff then said “What does that mean to you?” “We’re against Niggers, Catholics and Jews” said the Klansman. Elisha Dorminey stood his ground. “That’s not my definition of Americanism. My best friend is Sam Abram, a Jew; so I’m not joining.” The Klansman said “In that case, we shall have to run you out of office.” The Sheriff replied “No, but if you break the law, I’ll run you out of town.” This the Sheriff did, when he learned that the organizer was wanted for a crime in Indiana.
As late as 1963, Atlanta, though voting for JFK, was a socially segregated town. True, the court had spoken in 1954 striking the entrenched “Separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson, but this did not change hotels, restaurants and public facilities and it certainly had little effect on entrenched social attitudes.
My wife and I, in late 1963, had supported Adlai Stevenson. We gave not one but two Atlanta dinners in his honor. Why two? We wished to include friends from the Black community but Stevenson was known, admired and was friends with White Georgia politicians whose political standings would be damaged by so close a social engagement as dinner with Blacks.
I must say that practicing law as the General Counsel of a system of railroads and having to try cases before a jury – all White – I felt for 40 years on the cusp of general acceptability.
In the late 1940s, as Counsel to the Southern Regional Office of the ADL, I had drafted at the request of its Southern Director Alex Miller, several laws against the Ku Klux Klan. These laws, enacted in five Southern States and 53 cities, dealt a heavy blow to the Ku Klux Klan. Then I had for 14 years waged a fully publicized legal struggle against the Georgia County Unit election system which amongst other wrongs “kept Blacks in their place.” By 1954, when I ran for Congress in the Atlanta district, it was clear that I would not turn my back on the Brown vs. Topeka desegregation decision.
Governor Talmadge had been asked in the McCarthy days “Is Morris Abram a Communist?” He replied, “I won’t say that, but it is a fact that he’s a correspondent of the ACLU and was on the Board of the United World Federalists.”
In this atmosphere it was difficult for men and women who wished to remain with the larger society, to stand by their beliefs in support of racial equality. A much forgotten benefit of the ADL, the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish defense organizations, is the comfort, camaraderie and moral protection afforded Jews who could never have accepted the full blown “Southern way of life,” especially as these were facing more and more controversial change.
As one born in 1918, twelve years after the Leo Frank case, its resonance persisted. I was particularly aware of the case of this innocent Northern Jew who was falsely accused and convicted of raping and murdering a 14-year old white girl in a pencil factory which he managed. The deed took place on April 30th, Confederate Memorial Day, which magnified the sentiments surrounding the crime. The case was tried in the Court House where I practiced law, under circumstances in which the Supreme Court of the United States had noted there was “a mob outside yelling for Frank’s blood” with a jury inside deciding that he should be executed. The Court refused to reverse the conviction and Frank awaited execution in the electric chair at Milledgeville. His sentence at the last minute was commuted to life imprisonment by the then-Governor John Slaton.
In 1940, I had a quiet conversation with the then venerable former Governor who, after commuting the sentence, had to leave town with his wife for months, as a mob beset the Governor’s mansion. I said to Governor Slaton “You were a brave man.” He replied, “Not at all. I had no alternative. As the time for execution neared, my wife Lucy Grant Slaton asked me, did I think Frank was guilty, and I replied I have my doubts.” Slaton said, “My wife then said, I will not live with a man who permits a man who is innocent to be executed.” So, said Governor Slaton, “I had no choice.”
Georgia, prior to the 1960s, was clearly a House divided by many forces.
Now the biggest force unifying the House were the actions of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s remembered as the force driving the Vietnam War. But he was also the often rude, powerful, determined, persuasive and propelling cause behind the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1967. These were the legal foundations for a new American society which finally had a chance to become a House united.
I am not naive enough to believe that the hearts of men have been totally changed in my lifetime. But minds have been changed, and the actions of leadership have been redirected. It was difficult for good people to do the right thing about race when the churches supported segregation, the politicians vociferously endorsed it and good people simply went along with what the leaders of society had endorsed. I’m not saying that the practitioners of racial politics changed their characters after the Voting Rights Act of 1967 brought forth a huge Black electorate; but their language changed; their votes were modified and the “N” word was stripped from the language.
Again, Daddy King foresaw this clearly. In 1954, I was a guest speaker at the Hungry Club, the Black equivalent of Atlanta’s Rotary Club. I spoke of the power of the vote and mentioned that my friend Baxter Jones and I had been defeated narrowly in the Atlanta Congressional races in 1952 and 1954 – pointing out that while there were several hundred thousand White registered voters, there were only 20,000 Blacks registered in the District, where even then they could vote. This, I said, was a self-inflicted disability. I was amongst friends, but I was immediately attacked as “Blaming the victim.” Daddy King arose from the audience “Don’t any of you say I’m an Uncle Tom. I’m going to Birmingham tonight to be with my son Martin. Now you listen to me; that White man has told you the truth, even if you don’t want to hear it.”
Now, jump ahead 45 years. Today, after a lifetime in UN affairs, I can say that the United Nations is a vital house, but it too is a house divided. It is divided not only by differences of opinion which is healthy but by discrimination against Israel, much as the discrimination against Blacks of which I have spoken tonight. Israel, the Jewish State, is treated as a pariah within the UN — a fact that we in the Jewish community know. And this treatment, wholly unacceptable, divides the world body and impairs its credibility.
The House of Lincoln was divided; its total separation was prevented by Lincoln and a bloody war, and it still is not a united House. But it is becoming one. First because of the healing processes in American society, when it no longer has to listen to its leaders denying the very principles of the Constitution that the Courts enforce, and all groups are protected by the vote which makes representative government what it should be.
Let me conclude with a final observation – an important one – drawn from the wisdom of Nelson Mandela. That wise man knows that a once divided people cannot at once have everything right. In this city of Atlanta, we have this principle well demonstrated, because of the moderation and good sense of Black mayors and government officials and the corresponding positions of White leaders.
Nelson Mandela was faced with the question of the anthem of the new South Africa. Many Blacks wanted to adopt the Black freedom song Nikosi Sikelele. Mandela said yes, but we are a united nation and we should not abandon Die Stem, the old anthem. Atlanta sings loud and freely “We shall overcome” and just as loudly, and with the same feeling, the “Star Spangled Banner.”