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Morris B. Abram; Jewish Leader Was Longtime Human Rights Advocate

March 17, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Morris B. Abram, a small-town Southern Jew who rose to become a fighter for civil and human rights, a university president, diplomat and a leader of the American Jewish community, has died at the age of 81.

Abram died Thursday of a viral infection in Geneva, where he headed U.N. Watch, an oversight group he helped found.

Abram's long involvement in human and civil rights began in the late 1940s when he was a young Georgia lawyer leading an effort to abolish that state's "county unit rule," which effectively perpetuated segregationist rule by giving disproportionate weight to rural voters.

His battle culminated in a 1963 victory before the U.S. Supreme Court that held the Georgia voting system unconstitutional and established the principle of one man, one vote.

He served five presidents, most recently as the United States permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva for George Bush.

He grew up a Jew in Baptist Georgia, born in Fitzgerald, Ga., in 1918. He was raised by parents who represented conflicting strands of Jewish tradition: the Yiddish culture of his Romanian immigrant father, and the German-Jewish culture of his mother, whose great-grandfather had been one of the first Reform rabbis in America.

He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1938, got a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1940 and won a Rhodes scholarship, but had to postpone taking it until after the war. He served with the Air Force in the European campaign and was on the prosecution team at the war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany.

After the war, he was able to complete his Rhodes scholarship and he returned to the South to begin his legal career. He practiced in Atlanta for much of his career, and in New York City.

In 1960 he was a key Southern supporter of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.

While working for Kennedy's election, he arranged telephone calls of support from Kennedy that helped win the release from jail of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That incident was credited with helping to swing crucial black voters to Kennedy's side. After his election, Kennedy named Abram general counsel of the Peace Corps, the first of several presidential posts he would fill over the next four decades.

He was named U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by Lyndon Johnson; chairman of the President's Commission for the Study of the Ethical Problems of Medicine by Jimmy Carter; vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by Ronald Reagan; and permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva by Bush.

His nomination to the civil rights commission was endorsed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the elder King wrote: "When Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for sitting in Rich's Dining Room with some of his young followers, Mr. Abram was highly instrumental in getting them all released. . . . In 1963, Mr. Abram went down to Georgia, and got five civil rights workers, my son's supporters, out of jail with the help of a three-judge federal court. All of these kids were being held without bail, charged with, of all things, sedition." He also noted that Abram chaired the United Negro College Fund for nine years ending in 1979, the longest tenure of any chairman. Abram's experience in academia included a stint as president of Brandeis University from 1968 to 1970.

Abram's service on the civil rights commission was controversial, however, marked by internal debate over fundamental civil rights principles and the meaning of equality. Some commissioners, including Abram, were criticized by former colleagues in the civil rights movement for opposing special help for blacks, Latinos, women and others who had faced disadvantages.

Those critics included Benjamin Hooks, then director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, who harshly attacked Abram and two others at the time of their nomination, saying he did not know "how we could have any more incompetent people anywhere in this nation, unless they openly wore Ku Klux Klan robes."

When he resigned the commission post in 1986, Abram told President Reagan that he believed the civil rights movement "should return to first principles--the zealous regard for equal opportunity and the promotion of colorblind law and social policy."

He stepped down from the civil rights post to head the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He devoted much of the last decade working for Jewish organizations and Israel.

As chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry in 1985, he met with Reagan and Soviet officials to open the way for significant broadening of rights for 3 million Soviet Jews, including establishment of flights through Romania for Jews to emigrate to Israel and opening of new synagogues in Russia.

Since 1993, he had headed U.N. Watch, established and supported by Edgar M. Bronfman and the World Jewish Congress. The watchdog group gained a reputation as an effective monitor of the United Nations, particularly in regard to opposing anti-Semitism and advocating fairness for Israel.

He was the recipient of a special award from the American Jewish Committee last November. In honoring him, President Bruce M. Ramer called Abram "an icon--in the law, in civil rights, in academia, in the Jewish world . . . a great and innovative leader."

Abram is survived by his third wife, Bruna Molina, and five children from a previous marriage: daughters Ruth and Ann, and sons Morris, J. Adam and Joshua, all of whose last name is Abram. He had nine grandchildren.

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