On Sunday, January 5, Washington, D.C.’s beloved independent store Politics and Prose will host Potomac author David E. Lowe for a reading and discussion of his new book, Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle against Racial and Religious Discrimination (December 2019). Encompassing many of the contentious issues we still face today—such as legislative apportionment, affirmative action, campus unrest, and the enforcement of international human rights—Abram’s varied career sheds light on our own troubled times.
Morris B. Abram (1918–2000) emerged from humble origins in a rural South Georgia town to become one of the leading civil rights lawyers in the United States during the 1950s. While unmasking the Ku Klux Klan and serving as a key intermediary for the release of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from prison on the eve of the 1960 presidential election, Abram carried out a successful fourteen-year battle to end the discriminatory voting system in his home state, which had entrenched racial segregation. The result was the historic “one man, one vote” ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.
This event will last from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. and is free to attend with no reservation required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis. Click here for more information.
Below is a brief excerpt from Touched with Fire:
From Chapter 11: Challenging New Definitions of Civil Rights
On June 23, 1982, Morris Abram appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line program to discuss his recently published autobiography. The episode was titled “Odyssey of a Southern Liberal.” Two decades had passed since the two had faced off in debate at Emory. As Buckley recalled that evening:
Twenty-odd years ago I was engaged by Emory College in Atlanta to debate with a local liberal about whom, now I confess, I knew very little, other than that he was defiantly Jewish, defiantly liberal, anti-segregationist, and a lawyer. The auditorium was crowded, and I found myself facing one of the most ferocious advocates in my experience, even then extensive. It transpired that he had spent days in the library researching everything I had done and, more importantly, not done. It was a high-pitched evening, and the next day I visited his offices where he showed me a blueprint for a serene and integrated, happy America.1
This time the atmosphere was much more congenial. Buckley began his questioning by asking Abram about the case of Allan Bakke, a white applicant denied admission to the Davis Medical School of the University of California, whose lawsuit against the school had been ruled upon by the U.S. Supreme Court four years earlier. The medical school had set aside sixteen of its one hundred slots for black applicants, and Bakke contended that in the absence of this program, he would have been admitted based upon his qualifications.2
The court ruled that while racial quotas are unconstitutional, race could be considered in college admissions for purposes of achieving a more diverse student body. Abram told Buckley that he believed the Bakke decision was “a muddle,” since it didn’t come down on either side of the controversy over racial preference. His view, as it was at the time of the Emory debate twenty years earlier, was that the constitution was intended to be color-blind, drawing no distinctions between people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, or sex. Although the civil rights movement, he pointed out, had taken the same position during the desegregation cases, “the movement by and large has departed and now wants racial preferences.”3
Abram was even more disturbed, he said, by the more recent Supreme Court decision, Fullilove v. Klutznick, upholding the federal appropriation setting aside for minority contractors a certain percentage of public works funding. Not only was this law discriminatory against struggling contractors not of Hispanic or black origin, it opened the door to corruption through “all kinds of fabrications and falsifications and maneuvers and devices to give contractors a black or Hispanic front behind which whites or other majority elements could operate.”4 Both the Bakke and Fullilove opinions reflected divisions among the justices, even among those who agreed on their outcomes.
This was not the first time Abram had challenged the direction in which his old allies in the civil rights movement had moved. In a symposium appearing in Commentary magazine in January 1980, he noted that liberals, Jews notably among them, had traditionally supported reforms designed to help those who were disadvantaged either by prejudice or by educational and economic disparity. Although “wise men” understood that absolute equality could never be achieved, “equality before the law, neutrality as to ethnicity, religion, or sex, were the proper goals of the advocates of equal opportunity.”5
1. Abram, “The Odyssey of a Southern Liberal.”
2. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 1978.
3. Abram, “Odyssey of a Southern Liberal.”
4. Abram, “Odyssey of a Southern Liberal.”
5. “Liberalism and the Jews.”