Roger Abramson has had a lifelong devotion to combating racism.
By Perry Stein
MIAMI — He marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., brushed shoulders with Robert Kennedy and produced concerts by a who’s who of 1960s and ’70s rock stars from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix.
And now Roger Abramson, a Miami Beach, Fla., transplant from Ohio, has a place of honor in his home state’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
Abramson, 77, joins 20 other inductees in the 3-year-old Hall of Fame, including Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and the late Rev. Fred Shuttleworth, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
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“We think Abramson’s work speaks volumes about the level of the individual that is inducted into the Hall of Fame,” said Brandi Martin, public affairs officer for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. “He did so much for the area in trying to bring about equality. He tried to do things at a time it was not popular to do so.”
“It’s a very humbling experience, and it makes you feel as if you’ve done something right along the way,” he said.
Born into an upper-middle class Jewish family in Painesville, Ohio, Abramson became an activist after he formed a trio at his Cincinnati high school with two black classmates. Traveling with them to play local clubs, he witnessed the prejudice they faced, and was spurred into action.
“It was natural,” he said. “I was already very involved in the black community, being the only white musician playing in these black clubs.”
With William Bowen, a black Ohio state senator, as his mentor, Abramson joined in a march to protest racist policies at the Coney Island Swimming Pool in Cincinnati in 1959. Bowen, who died in 1999, is a member of the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and his wife, Sharon, nominated Abramson.
“I thought he was most deserving of this award,” Sharon Bowen said. “He is one who should be applauded for his efforts and should not be forgotten for all the things he did for the cause.”
Abramson later chaired the Southern Ohio chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which organized sit-ins, voter registration drives and freedom rides.
“You just did it, I guess,” he said. “You kind of just did it because you were the only one around; there was no real structure.”
Abramson and his wife, Diane, often held fundraising events at their home, and the guest lists included the likes of Julian Bond, a SNCC co-founder and former NAACP president; John Gilligan, the governor of Ohio at the time; Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta and close friend of King’s; and Peter, Paul and Mary, the folk singing trio.
He also donated some of the revenue from the concerts he produced to civil rights groups. Dylan, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors and Pink Floyd were among the acts he worked with.
“At the time people were a little more accessible,” he said. “They were all really behind this whole thing, really behind fighting these injustices.”
Abramson recalls a night in Memphis in about 1970 when he threatened to cancel a Hendrix concert unless a local sheriff apologized for insulting the famed guitarist. The man apologized, and the show went on before 8,000 fans.
In 1968, Abramson helped organize a boycott of Cincinnati public schools to protest disparities between the district’s white and black schools. About 45 percent of the city’s public school students attended “freedom schools” the boycott organizers had set up, he said, and within a few weeks, the district addressed the inequities.
“This was a huge protest and I was so proud of this,” Abramson said. “It was really a great thing to do.”
He was also involved in organizing the famed Mississippi “Freedom Summer” in 1964, a campaign to register African-American voters. Abramson helped plan a training session at Miami University in Ohio attended by Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two young white men from New York who later that summer were abducted and murdered in Mississippi along with black activist James Chaney.
During the two months between the trio’s disappearance and the discovery of their bodies, Abramson wrote to Mississippi leaders pleading for help in finding them. Some of the more than 50 responses he received referred to the incident as “NAACP propaganda” and labeled the missing men “a bunch of Communists, pinkos, perverts and lovers of colored people.”
“I was absolutely appalled that responsible members of the community were taken such a really racist attitude,” Abramson said. “I couldn’t get over it. It was something that absolutely motivated me to become more involved and continue my participation in trying to correct the injustices that were going on.”