Last October and November civil rights groups in Mississippi conducted one of their most ambitious efforts to date, when they ran Aaron Henry, president of the state NAACP organization, for governor. Chief organizer and fund-raiser of the massive effort was Al Lowenstein, a man with a long record of freedom-fighting.
Visiting Cambridge last weekend, Lowenstein spent a few days at Harvard, encouraging people to act out their belief in civil rights by working in the South. In House dining rooms, groups clustered about Lowenstein to listen to an inexhaustible supply of tales about his personal experiences from Yazoo City, Mississippi, to Cape Town, South Africa. He provoked the interest, sometimes the anger, but always the respect, of those around him.
Lowenstein has never stayed in one place long. A native of Raleigh, he graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1949. He spent the next year in Washington as an assistant to Senator Frank Graham and the following year became president of the National Student Association. While NSA president, he earned a reputation as the best public speaker the Association has ever had, organizing and setting policy for the International Student Congress, which broke from the communist-dominated International Union of Students.
Graduating from Yale Law School in 1954, he then spent two years in the Army. Since that time, he has been supplementing his political activity by alternately practicing law in New York, teaching at Stanford (whose student body he calls "the greatest in the world"), and teaching at North Carolina State College.
But for Lowenstein his more regular jobs only sustain him between his projects for human rights. In 1958 and 1959, he recruited and led a force of trouble-shooters on a trip to South West Africa to record and report the facts of racial oppression for the United Nations. In the foreword to Lowenstein's book on the expedition, Brutal Mandate, Eleanor Roosevelt called him "a person of unusual ability and complete integrity....he will always fight crusades because injustice fills him with a sense of rebellion."
But Lowenstein's attention has now turned to the civil rights struggle. The situation in Mississippi is worse than ever, he maintains. As long as the white population of the South continues to live what he calls "a master-race existence" and the First Amendment "is effectively nullified," he sees a need to keep up his fight. The struggle must be focused, he says, not necessarily on those areas where there is the best chance for success, but on those where the issue is clearest, as in Mississippi.
As a native Southerner, Lowenstein feels a serious personal responsibility to improve the situation in the South. He expresses a genuine guilt for his ability to escape persecution that others cannot escape because of their skin color. "In order to really help," he says, "there have got to be enough whites who attempt to give up their obsession with whiteness and stop seeking their side of the broadening racial chasm." The Henry campaign in Mississippi was successful only as "a means of recreating hope among Negroes that they will gain their freedom," he says. There is a great deal still to be done.
Friends have told Lowenstein to "stop throwing away his life on lost causes. Why not settle down and run for Congress or something?" But for Al Lowenstein "something" would be a poor substitute for what he is doing now.