Prairie Populist, Honest Senator James Abourezk, Fearless Fighter for Justice

Most citizen advocates who work with U.S. senators on a wide variety of issues probably would agree that the late South Dakota Democrat, James Abourezk, was one of a kind. It was not that he was so honest, so down to earth, or so engaging with friend and foe alike. Rather, it was his willingness to be a minority of one pressing into visibility the plight of the forgotten, the oppressed and the excluded.

During his one term in the Senate (1973 to 1978), he singlehandedly took the plight and causes of Native Americans to heights the long-complicit Congress and media could not ignore. Read what the Associated Press had to say in its obituary:

“Mr. Abourezk was the first chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and successfully pressed for the American Indian Policy Review Commission. It produced a comprehensive review of federal policy with American Indian tribes and sparked the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act — a landmark piece of legislation meant to cut down on the alarming rate at which Native American children were taken from their homes and placed with white families.”

Abourezk found a keen supporter in fellow South Dakotan Senator George McGovern, who was pioneering Senate hearings “discovering” serious hunger in America, including on Indian Reservations. He grew up on the impoverished Rosebud Reservation and never forgot where he came from.

As Senator, he visited Lebanon, the ancestral land of his immigrant parents, which introduced him to U.S. policy in the Middle East and the oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel and its main backer, the U.S. government. As a lone voice on Capitol Hill, he championed wider recognition of these racist practices, including discrimination against Arab-Americans (the other anti-Semitism).

His style was one of dialogue and friendly debate. He co-authored a book with Hyman Bookbinder titled, Through Different Eyes: Two Leading Americans, a Jew and an Arab, Debate U.S. Policy in the Middle East (1987). They travelled together around the country discussing and disagreeing before rapt audiences unused to such two-way dialogues.

The former Senate Democratic majority leader, South Dakotan Tom Daschle was a Senate aide to Senator Abourezk. He told AP, “He was courageous, he was outspoken. I give him great credit for his advocacy of human rights, especially of the need to recognize the Arab American community in the United States. He was a lone voice for many years. He was a great storyteller; he had great humor; he was quick-witted and people loved to be around him.”

Not surprising when you learn of all the jobs Abourezk had before and after serving four years in the Navy, earning a civil engineering degree from the South Dakota School of Mines and a law degree from the University of South Dakota School of Law. He worked as a ranger, blackjack dealer, judo instructor, bartender, bouncer, car salesman and wholesale grocery salesman.

Such experiences can lead to an independence of thought and practice. These jobs gave him a sense of theatre. Saying that sports was not controversial and can bring people together, he arranged for the University of South Dakota basketball team to play a game with the Cuban national basketball team in Cuba, where he met with Fidel Castro.

After retiring from the U.S. Senate, he wrote a memoir epitomizing his sense of humor, rooted in truth, emerged in force. He wrote of the Senate: “Where else are your doors opened for you, is your travel all over the world provided free of charge, can you meet with world leaders who would otherwise never let you into their countries, have your bad jokes laughed at and your boring speeches applauded? It’s the ultimate place to have one’s ego massaged, over and over.”

He believed in term limits and practiced what he preached – one term only – to the detriment of the American people that “this prairie populist” so dutifully spoke and acted for in the corporate-dominated Congress. We found him to be the “go-to” person in the Senate when time was of the essence. He took up consumer, labor, and family farmer causes as a matter of duty. With knowledge and intuition, he rose to the occasion, often with his close collaborator, Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH), to challenge big business lobbies.

After he left the Senate, he founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), practiced law in South Dakota for good causes, and continued to speak out on U.S. foreign policy. Former ADC president, Albert Mokhiber wrote: “We lost a dear friend and mentor, a brave leader and the best that America has and hopefully will continue to offer.”

In the Nineties, he told me he sometimes regretted leaving the Senate, noting that by then his seniority would have made him chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He observed that had he led that Committee, several top judicial nominees, including Clarence Thomas, would not have been confirmed.

He was an exceedingly compassionate man. He was quick to express condolences and suggest some award or other legacy be established in honor of the deceased.

His many friends should gather together and decide what kinds of permanent legacies can be established in honor of a man who stood out, stood tall and proclaimed the needs of justice for the dispossessed. That would be a good way to convey condolences to his outstanding restaurateur wife and author, Sanaa Dieb, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The young generation, turned off by corrupt and cowardly politicians, needs to learn about the luminous life of 92-year-old James Abourezk.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!