Elliott Levitas, Georgia’s first Jewish congressman, dies at 91

Credit: File photo

Credit: File photo

When Elliott Levitas became Georgia’s first Jewish congressman in 1975, he was already known for being a public servant who had stood up against racism in the formerly segregated state. And he continued his call to aiding others years afterward, helping to lead a landmark class-action lawsuit on behalf of American Indians against the U.S. government.

The legal and political crusader against injustice died Friday, just 10 days before his 92nd birthday.

His political career started in 1965 after being elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, and he quickly became known as a voice for racial justice. His first act as a legislator was to cast a dissenting vote in the House’s refusal to allow civil rights activist and Vietnam War opponent Julian Bond to assume the seat to which he had been elected. Levitas was one of only five white legislators to vote to seat black legislator Bond, for which he received death threats.

Then in 1966, no one received a majority of votes in the race for governor. Acting under existing state law, the General Assembly convened to decide the state’s leader and gave the election to Democrat Lester Maddox, even though a plurality of the vote had gone to Republican Bo Callaway. Levitas, a Democrat, refused to cast his vote for Maddox, the outspoken segregationist, and cast his vote for Callaway.

Levitas would serve five terms in the Legislature and became a leading proponent for the development of Atlanta’s rapid transit system, MARTA.

In 1974, he was elected to represent Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District. Levitas headed the subcommittee investigating the Reagan administration’s efforts to undermine the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency, which led to the firing of dozens of senior officials.

His environmental efforts as a legislator and U.S. representative also were reflected in his work to create and fund the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area as a national park. Many years later in 2011, the U.S. National Park Service honored Levitas at a ceremony at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

He was dean of the Georgia congressional delegation when he was unseated by a Republican upset victory in the 1984 election.

Upon leaving Congress, Levitas joined the Kilpatrick & Cody law firm (now Kilpatrick Townsend), where he practiced for over 30 years before retiring.

His legal legacy includes the case Cobell v. Norton, involving lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe from Montana whose case was broadened to demand an accounting for nearly 11 million acres that was parceled and put into individual trusts for Native Americans in 1887. A settlement sought to determine how much was owed to more than 300,000 Native Americans whose land has been leased to timber, ranching, farming, oil and mining operations.

The $3.4 billion award to plaintiffs was the largest class-action award against the government in United States history.

“The firm has lost an authentic historymaker,” Kilpatrick Townsend said in a statement after Levitas’ death.

“Elliott’s dramatic cross-examination of then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt was a turning point that led ultimately to the largest settlement ever agreed to by the United States government,” the law firm noted.

Levitas was born in Atlanta on Dec. 26, 1930, to Ida and Louis Levitas. He attended Boys High School and was in the first graduating class of Grady High School. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Emory University. As a Rhodes Scholar, he obtained a Master of Law Degree from Oxford University in England. He served two years in the U.S. Air Force and was a member of the Judge Advocate General’s staff. His career in private law practice began at the Atlanta firm of Arnall, Golden & Gregory, where he was a protégé of former Georgia Gov. Ellis Arnall.

Levitas was active in Atlanta’s Jewish community as a member of the Ahavath Achim congregation and with the Anti-Defamation League.

His many awards for his work over the years include the Thomas B. Murphy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Democratic Party of Georgia in 2008 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Georgia’s legal community in 2016.

His strong ties to Emory are evident each year when the Political Science department presents the Elliott Levitas Award to an outstanding graduating senior. In 2012, Levitas was awarded the Emory Medal from the Emory Alumni Association “for his commitment to civic service and his unrelenting defense of justice for our nation’s underserved populations.”

He is survived by Barbara, his wife of 67 years and high school sweetheart, daughters Karin and Susan, son Kevin, and six grandchildren.

The funeral service will be held at noon Monday at the Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta, with burial at Arlington Memorial Park.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to ADL Southeast, Georgia Conservancy, Southern Environmental Law Center, Ahavath Achim Synagogue or choice of charity. Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care is in charge of arrangements.