Civil rights proponent Arnold Aronson dies at 86

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WASHINGTON — Arnold Aronson, founder of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and longtime program director for the National Jewish Community Relations Council, died of pancreatic cancer Feb. 17 at his home in Wheaton, Md. He was 86.

Aronson was born in Boston on March 11, 1911, received his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1932 and earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago.

He began his civil rights career in 1941, when he worked with A. Phillip Randolph, then-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to protest discrimination in employment. The prospect of a proposed march on Washington convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which barred discrimination in any war-related industry on the basis of race, creed or national origin and established the nation's first Fair Employment Practices Committee for wartime industries.

In 1945, Aronson became program director for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (now called the Jewish Council on Public Affairs), a coalition of national and local Jewish agencies that develops policies and programs for Jewish agency involvement on issues of civil rights, civil liberties, immigration reform, church-state separation, Soviet Jewish emigration and support for Israel. He remained in that position for 31 years.

As secretary of both the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee and the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization in the late 1940s, Aronson, along with Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, convened over 4,000 delegates in Washington to press for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee and an anti-lynching statute. This led to the merger of the two organizations in 1950 to form the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

As secretary of the organization until 1980, Aronson helped coordinate the lobbying campaigns that resulted in the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Along with Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and others, Aronson was one of the 10 organizers and leaders of the 1963 March on Washington.

Last month, Aronson was one of 15 people who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States government's highest civilian award. The honor is given by the president to "those persons he deems to have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

At the time of his death, Aronson was serving as president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, which he created as a research arm and clearinghouse for civil rights issues.

Aronson focused increasingly on programs aimed at developing positive intergroup attitudes among young children, and the fund entered into a 10-year partnership with the Advertising Council of America aimed at developing public service announcements dealing with diversity and prejudice.

Aronson is survived by his wife of 58 years, Annette; two sons, Simon Aronson of Chicago and Bernard Aronson of Takoma Park, Md.; and one granddaughter, Felicia Marie Aronson of Takoma Park.