Aaron L. Buchsbaum, a Savannah lawyer, was a passionate advocate of social justice, classical music and public radio, and brought a measure of each to his hometown.
Buchsbaum was a key figure in the civil rights movement, helping to desegregate Savannah institutions and the state jury system. He was a concert organizer, bringing world-renowned musicians to the city, and a founder of Savannah’s public radio station. He was also a leader and spokesman for the Jewish community.
He practiced law for more than 50 years, and was best known for his civil rights work which, when it began in the early 1960s, was a cause that was deeply resented and whose outcome was far from assured.
“He has confronted issues and people at times and places when and where it was unpopular, very unpopular,” Judge James W. Head, a former law partner, said when Buchsbaum received the NAACP Freedom Award in 1991. “But this has not deterred his efforts or determination to change those things he deems in need of alteration. If you truly know this man, as I do, you respect him for his courage, his intellect, his zeal and his sense of humor.”
Buchsbaum grew up in Savannah in the 1930s, where he was confronted with widespread poverty and racism, and witnessed abuses he could neither comprehend nor accept. As a lawyer, undaunted by occasional defeats, he never stopped working to end injustice and inequality.
In the early 1960s, he successfully challenged legal practices used to jail civil rights demonstrators in Savannah. One of them, a teenager arrested at a Tybee Island sit-in, was Edna Jackson, now Savannah’s mayor.
Another was Rick Tuttle, a Freedom Rider who had come to Savannah in 1963 to help register black voters, and who later became city controller of Los Angeles.
“I was a pretty unpopular fellow in Savannah when Aaron took my case,” Tuttle said recently. “This could have gone very badly for someone trying to build a practice, support a young family, pay a mortgage. That’s called courage.”
In 1963, Buchsbaum served on the biracial committee organized by Mayor Malcolm Maclean and local business leaders to negotiate an end to segregated public facilities in Savannah, a year before Congress acted on the issue. The committee’s proposal, given urgency by the Chatham Crusade for Voters’ anti-segregation night marches, was widely credited with ushering in Savannah’s relatively peaceful desegregation.
Two years later, Buchsbaum and several other lawyers desegregated the Savannah Bar Association, quietly stacking a meeting with supporters of integration and proposing Gene Gadsden, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Savannah, for membership. In an acrimonious meeting, Gadsden’s membership was approved.
In 1967, when the local White Citizens Council tried to stop school integration by intimidating black students, Buchsbaum signed a newspaper ad urging the community to obey the law, and filed a lawsuit to stop the council’s picketing of M&M Supermarkets, whose owners, the Melaver family, had also signed the ad.
That same year, in one of his farthest-reaching cases, Buchsbaum became the first attorney to challenge racial discrimination in Georgia grand and petit jury selections. A ruling on his appeal of a death penalty case forced the state to expand jury pools from property owners to all registered voters, allowing more blacks into the system and effectively desegregating the state’s juries.
In 1969, he took on efforts by Savannah authorities to ban local distribution of The Great Speckled Bird, a liberal, Atlanta-based underground newspaper. He defended the local teenagers who were repeatedly arrested for distributing it and an Armstrong State College professor who was fired for giving it away. Courts repeatedly threw out obscenity charges, but police harassment ultimately drove the publication out of town, and the professor never regained his job.
“Are we so unsure of our way of life that we cannot have dissent in word and print?” Buchsbaum asked in a speech in 1970. “We should not only tolerate but welcome dissent in America. Our nation was born of dissent.”
Buchsbaum worked countless hours pro bono and to establish and expand organizations to represent the poor. In 1966, he became president of the Legal Aid Society of Savannah, opening its first fulltime office. He later joined the board of its successor, Georgia Legal Services. As its president, from 1976 to 1981, he oversaw a broad expansion of the program to include representation of migrant farmworkers and legislative advocacy, and doubled the number of offices statewide to more than 20.
In 1974, Governor Jimmy Carter appointed Buchsbaum to the Governor’s Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, where he helped recommend new laws to improve the state justice system, especially to make it more accessible to the poor.
He was the volunteer cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union for Savannah, and a member of its Georgia advisory board. He joined the NAACP and for more than 40 years served as the attorney for the local anti-poverty agency, the Economic Opportunity Authority.
He also actively promoted black professionals into positions of leadership. It was on his advice that Governor Carter appointed Gadsden as a Workers’ Compensation Board judge, desegregating the Chatham County bench, and that Governor George Busbee later promoted Gadsden to be the first black judge of the Chatham County Superior Court.
Buchsbaum encouraged Otis Johnson to run for mayor of Savannah in 2003 and then backed his successful campaigns.
Since the late 1960s, Buchsbaum had asked the Savannah Bar Association to stop holding functions at private clubs with discriminatory membership policies, in particular the Savannah Golf Club and the Savannah Yacht Club. In 1980, he resigned from the Bar Association after it scheduled another event at the Golf Club, saying that its use of such venues made it “an accessory to institutionalized bigotry.” He rejoined the association only when it changed its policy in 2004.
His resignation letter offers some insight into his motivation for his civil rights work. The Golf Club had substantial Jewish membership, he wrote, but “bigotry or discrimination practiced against any minority or other group is as abhorrent to me as if I were the individual victim.” He often cited his parents and his Jewish upbringing, with its emphasis on justice, for instilling strong values. Growing up Jewish in Savannah also gave him a sense of the outsider, and linked him to the disenfranchised poor and black communities around him.
He also resigned in 1994 from the NAACP after the national organization’s embrace of Louis Farrakhan and its failure to respond to his letters on the subject. “Just as I resigned from the Savannah Bar Association in 1980 because of its tolerance of bigotry,” he wrote, “I now sadly resign from the NAACP for exactly the same reason.”
As longtime counsel for the Chatham County Association of Educators, his defense of teachers and of the Bill of Rights merged in 1996 in the case of Sherry Hearn, an award-winning Savannah high school history teacher who was fired for insubordination for initially refusing to take a drug test. Hearn taught the Constitution and had vocally opposed the lockdown searches at her school. One of those searches, conducted without a warrant and in apparent violation of school policy, was said to have turned up half a marijuana cigarette in her open, unlocked car. Hearn later took a drug test showing she had no drugs in her system. Buchsbaum appealed her dismissal up to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but lost.
Buchsbaum was also a lover and ardent proponent of classical music. When the acclaimed pianist Charles Wadsworth was asked by a reporter about the origins of the chamber music series he brought to Savannah in the mid-2000s, his answer began, “There was a gentleman from Savannah who so loved classical music and the way classical artists work, and his name is Aaron Buchsbaum. He was the real reason I started bringing shows to Savannah.”
Buchsbaum had been active in the Savannah Concert Association from 1975 until it closed in 1996, and was among the group that restarted it in 2003. He served on the city’s Cultural Arts Commission and on the boards of the Savannah Symphony and City Lights Theatre.
Buchsbaum was a fan of public radio long before it existed in Savannah. On family car trips to Atlanta, he would start fiddling with the radio immediately upon clearing Macon, searching for WABE, Atlanta’s public radio station. The radio would remain on WABE until the signal lost out to static on the way back to Savannah.
In 1978, he and a group of friends formed a nonprofit corporation, Georgia Public Radio, to bring public radio to Savannah. WSVH, a community-owned station, went on the air in 1981 at 91.1 FM and developed superb, locally produced jazz and classical programs.
Despite strong fund-raising efforts, the station never overcame its operating deficit. In 1988, under Buchsbaum’s leadership, the board transferred the license to the state-run public radio network, which began four years earlier. Many supporters and staff members had given their souls to the station and the idea of relinquishing local control was divisive. But the board decided that for WSVH to live, the community radio station had to die.
As a leader of Savannah’s Jewish community, Buchsbaum served twice as chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, to which he gave generously. He served on the board of the Savannah Jewish Council and on the executive committees of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, including as its vice chairman from 1971 to 1976. He was also a lifetime member of the southeastern advisory board of the Anti-Defamation League.
He served on the board of Savannah Landmark Rehabilitation Project, a nonprofit organization that renovates housing for occupancy by low-income tenants and which has restored hundreds of homes in the Victorian District without gentrification.
He campaigned unsuccessfully to prevent the Hyatt Hotel from encroaching on River Street, and successfully to save the 1921 Lucas Theatre.
Aaron Levy Buchsbaum was the son of Herbert Buchsbaum, co-owner of Buchsbaum Brothers wholesale grocery, and Sarah Levy Buchsbaum, daughter of the founder of Levy Jewelers, for whom Aaron was named. He attended Massie School, which was behind his house on Gaston Street, and Savannah High School where, despite being the top-ranked tennis player, he was barred from becoming team captain because of his religion. He graduated from Tulane University with a BBA in 1952 and from Emory University Law School, with honors and as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Public Law, in 1954.
After law school, he served in the Army as a specialist first class with the Army Audit Agency in Paris. He was admitted to the bars of Georgia, the United States Supreme Court and other federal courts.
He is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Esther Rosenbaum of Atlanta; their four children, Herbert, Lauren, Susan and Elizabeth; and four grandchildren, Emma Louise Buchsbaum, Sarah Lea Gratz, David Matthew Gratz and Isabella Pearl Levine; a daughter-in-law, Letta Tayler; and son-in-law, Jeffrey Gratz.
His mother sometimes worried his civil rights activities would hurt his practice, but she never tried to talk him out of it.
“She knew she couldn’t,” he said in an interview. “It was something that I believed in, that people should be treated fairly, regardless of their race, religion, sex, age or anything else.”
Graveside service will be 11 a.m. Monday at Bonaventure Cemetery. The family will receive visitors at 6401 Habersham St., Apt. 1-C, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Donations may be made to the Jewish Educational Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St., Savannah, Ga., 31405; the Agudath Achim Synagogue, 9 Lee Boulevard, Savannah, Ga., 31405; or to the Aaron L. Buchsbaum Fellowship Fund, which pays for an Emory Law School graduate to work at Georgia Legal Services, Emory University School of Law, attn. Joella Hricik, 1301 Clifton Road, Atlanta, Ga., 30322.