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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Leslie W. Dunbar, December 18, 1978. Interview G-0075. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Civil rights activist describes his growing recognition of racial injustice

Dunbar describes his invitation to Bill Boyd, an African American political scientist at Atlanta University, to speak to the Political Science Club at Emory University about race relations in the late 1940s. Dunbar remembers this as an especially influential event in his own changing views on race relations. Dunbar remembers feeling ashamed that he had to be told what it was like to live as an African American in the South because as a southerner, he should have been able to recognize the racial injustice occurring around him. His growing awareness of the "existence of injustice" was crucial to his decision to move into the civil rights movement. Later in the interview, he stresses several times that he saw his role as the director of the Southern Regional Council as that of a "mind changer." In this sense, his interaction with Boyd seems to have played a special role in shaping his thoughts on how to best change race relations in the South.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Leslie W. Dunbar, December 18, 1978. Interview G-0075. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

LESLIE W. DUNBAR:
I'm not a person who has great dramatic things happen to him. I don't think I could ever be converted on a road to any Damascus. So I don't want to give you the wrong impression about this story I'm about to tell you. It meant a lot to me, but I think it also tells a little bit about what Emory was like then, and, more important, about what we all were like in the late forties and early fifties. Mentioning that Political Science Club-that's what we called it, it was a club of political science majors-reminded me of another thing that happened. I suggested to these majors that we have somebody from Atlanta University. They had never thought of that. Bell Wiley has helped me. Bell used to go out to various things at the Atlanta University Center, and he took me with him once or twice. So I'd met a couple people there. I'd run across Bill Boyd. I think all I'd done was shake hands with him. Bill Boyd was Professor of Political Science at Atlanta University. And the Political Science Club authorized me to invite Bill Boyd to a meeting. I think I mentioned this to Lynwood Holland, and I learned that he had never met this man. Nobody in my department had ever met him. This whole episode was a real learning experience for me, because I reflected on that. No one in the Emory Political Science Department had ever met the Professor of Political Science at Atlanta University. Also, they didn't know what his specialty was. I called him up, and I asked him to come out and talk. He said, "What do you want me to talk about?" That sort of stumped me. I don't know quite how I got through with that, but I got over the idea somehow that he should come out and talk with us about race relations. So he came. He was probably in his late thirties at that time. He was a cold, very reserved fellow. He had a certain stature around the city. Blacks thought of him as a prime intellectual. He died about two years later, of leukemia. He had this manner about him. He was one of those people who just demanded, by his manner, to be treated like a peer. There was nothing "southern" about him at all. He'd gone to the University of Michigan, and he was a specialist in international relations. As he told me later, he had seen where Ralph Bunch went and was setting his career in the same lines. Colonialism was a special interest. He began talking. There was just this bunch of students and me, one evening, out there at Emory, and I really went through a whole lot of intellectual development that evening. As he began to talk, I knew that I should not have asked him to talk about international relations. All of these students were southern, but he began telling them what it was to be a black man in the South. He began describing what he and his family went through when they drove to Washington-how you had to know where to stop, how you had sometimes to go to the woods, and all that. I sat there, and I heard all this, and I just had never thought of it before. I really hadn't, in those terms. There'd been a big thing in Atlanta, Hopalong Cassidy had come to town. All the kids wanted to go and see Hopalong Cassidy. We'd taken Linda down there. Now he talked about Hopalong Cassidy. He said, "My child came home and wanted to see Hopalong Cassidy. What did I tell her?" An elephant had died in the damn zoo at Grant Park, and all the kids in the schools were taking up collections to buy a new elephant. We sent a dime. He said, "You know, they took up a collection at the zoo in our child's classroom to buy a new elephant. How do we tell our daughter that she can't go see that elephant once it's bought?" He kept saying all these things, and I kept listening. I'd never really thought in these terms. That was a second revelation I had, but I had another one. It suddenly dawned on me that he hadn't said a single thing that I needed to hear, in the sense that anything that he had said, I could have figured out for myself if I'd ever given it one moment's thought. If I had ever asked myself what a black man has to endure driving his family north, I could have figured out every bit of that scenario. But I'd never done that. He hadn't told me a thing that I needed to be told. I've felt that way ever since, mostly, although black people keep educating me. After very nearly every bit of education I've ever had, I've been able to lean back and tell myself, I didn't need to be told that. You just really should not have to be told. After all this was over, Bill Boyd and I went back to my office. I'm not usually a very self-divulging person, but I felt that I should be. I said, "I want to apologize to you for asking you out here to talk about race and the South. I should have asked you out to talk about international relations, and I apologize." He was not an out-going fellow, but he sort of nodded. For the rest of the time I was in Atlanta, he was somebody I could talk with. It was really a great shame that he died. He would have been an important figure. That experience meant an awful lot to me.
HELEN BRESLER:
What is the significance of the fact that you could have figured all that out? Do you think it shows how limited people are when they try to think about problems?
LESLIE W. DUNBAR:
I think it shows that the existence of injustice of almost any kind in this world is something that ought to be apparent, even in detail, to a thinking person. A significant cause of the continuation of injustice is the willful blindness we have to it.