Leader Lost: Remembering Al Lowenstein

By Jeff Robbins

May 19, 2020 5 min read

In 1967, an unknown 38-year-old civil rights activist from New York took it upon himself to change the world, and then he did. Allard Lowenstein, a Yale-educated lawyer who had steadfastly avoided practicing law and was proud of having done so, was already a master of the quixotic. He had smuggled searing evidence about apartheid out of South Africa, managing to present it at the United Nations and forcing the United States to distance itself from its South African ally. Calling upon his credibility on campuses across America, he had spearheaded Freedom Summer, which drew hundreds of volunteers to Mississippi to register black voters in 1964.

Lowenstein was convinced that the Vietnam War was immoral and self-destructive, and that President Lyndon Johnson could be defeated for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination by an anti-war candidate. There were at least some people who agreed with Lowenstein on the first point. Nobody agreed with him on the second. But Lowenstein, who combined a remarkable ability to bring crowds to their feet with shrewd, street-smart political skill, believed that he could supply the movement if a candidate could be found. "I try to make people realize how powerful their political strength is whenever they get discouraged," Lowenstein later reflected, vastly understating what he could do that others couldn't.

The rest, as they say, is history. Lowenstein first tried to persuade Robert Kennedy to challenge Johnson. When Kennedy declined, he pursued others. Finally, in late November 1967, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy succumbed to Lowenstein's arguments and announced his candidacy. Three months later, Johnson was toast, and on March 31, 1968, he withdrew from the race. American politics had been upended, and Lowenstein hadn't merely predicted it; he had made it happen. "For Al," Kennedy wrote in a note to Lowenstein soon after Johnson withdrew, "who knew the lesson of Emerson and taught it to the rest of us: that if a man plants himself on his convictions and there abides, the huge world will come 'round to him."

Lowenstein went on to win election to Congress before New York's Republican-controlled state legislature gerrymandered his congressional district in order to prevent his reelection. It suited his sense of humor that after losing, he was introduced at a prominent British university as "that famous American congressman whose seat has been redistributed." He led a national effort to register young people who had just won the right to vote, earning a coveted spot as No. 7 ("007" was how Lowenstein proudly described it) on then-President Richard Nixon's so-called enemies list (in which he was called a "Guiding force behind the 18-year-old 'Dump Nixon' vote drive"). He was later appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by President Jimmy Carter.

In 1980, a deranged former student shot and killed Lowenstein. Thousands whom he had inspired and changed forever spilled out of New York City's largest synagogue onto Manhattan's streets to mourn his loss and celebrate his life. Many who knew him, or heard him, think about him still.

Lowenstein was blessed with gifts that hardly anyone had, and with one that no one did: the ability to persuade those implacably opposed to his position to change their minds. This he did by overwhelming force of logic married to respect. But it also didn't hurt that he could make people laugh as hard as they had ever laughed — whether large audiences or individual college students conscripted to drive him to the next event. "His enormous warmth and humor made him appreciate others more than anyone I have ever known," said his wife, Jenny Littlefield.

Lowenstein, whose connection to students was deep, would have found it unimaginable that any young person could fail to appreciate the imperative of removing President Donald Trump from office as America's last clear chance at redeeming the country we love. Forty springs after his death, with so much riding on those who care about our future understanding their own strength, one misses Al Lowenstein more than ever.

Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

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