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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 >>

Relationship between the Southern Regional Council and the Justice Department

Dunbar describes his perception of the role of the Southern Regional Council as an organization geared towards changing the racial attitudes of white southerners. Dunbar argues that this goal, that he pursued during his tenure as direction from 1961 to 1965, had roots in the 1950s, but that on the eve of the 1960s he was not necessarily hopeful. Dunbar cites the sit-in movement that began to sweep the South in 1960 and the election of John F. Kennedy as harbingers of hope for the movement and the SRC's aims. Nevertheless, Dunbar cites the struggle for civil rights in Albany, Georgia, as a turning point in the SRC's efforts to work with the federal government. Citing the Justice Department's unwillingness to step in and help civil rights workers in Albany as a primary reason the movement failed to succeed there, Dunbar explains that during his directorship, the SRC increasingly sought to work with other civil rights organizations, rather than the federal government, in order to effect change 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

HELEN BRESLER:
When you assumed the position of Executive Director, what was your view of the Council and its role in the South? How did you contribute to it? For example, the whole thing of the use of the press, and the role of the Council as interpreting events to the press, and how important that was to the Council's role as an agent supporting change. How self-conscious was the staff of that role?
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you get that question? Do you think of yourself as having been taught by Harold Fleming, or as following in his footsteps, or did you have a different sense of what the role of the Council should be than he did?
LESLIE W. DUNBAR:
I think I came to have a different one. I've never been terribly good in anything I've done at conceiving strategies and staying with them. I think I felt in 1958, '59, and '60, that the work of the SRC was to be a leading part of a great mind changing going on in the South. I think that pretty well accorded with Harold's view. I think the kind of publications I started putting out in 1959 and 1960 represented the best I could think of at the time, of the sorts of things we could do along that way. I think, at the time I took over, in 1961, that was still my view. We were primarily aimed at the white South. We were working within a context of a great historic mind-changing. Our role was to be something of a guide to it. So far as I might have ever formalized anything, that would have been it, I think. The victory of John Kennedy in 1960 seemd to open up new opportunities. It's been forgotten pretty much, I think, that the sit-in movement, which began while Eisenhower still had a year to run in office, proceeded all during 1960 with almost no encouragement of any kind from Washington. It was about as close as anything I know of, in past or present, to being an all southern movement, and it did win some very notable victories. In a sense, it was all southerners dealing with themselves. I was impressed by that. We all went into 1960 feeling very grim about things. The sit-in movement was a great spirit-lifter. It had profound effects, of course. Among them was that it changed the mood in the South from a sort of dreary pessimism-grimness. . . .
LESLIE W. DUNBAR:
Things had been very hard and very tough, but spirits were lifted. And then Kennedy brought in a lot of new people, and people suddenly began coming down and talking to you. There was a whole elan that developed there. At the annual meeting in November, 1960, a number of the Kennedy people came down. I think, a year before that, Harold had managed to bring the Field Foundation down to Atlanta for a board meeting. Stevenson, who was then President of the Field Foundation, came. That was a kind of invigorating thing to a lot of people at SRC. It was these good people from the North coming down to cheer you on. By 1960, it was different. Harris Wofford and a few others came through Atlanta, and you suddenly felt that you were on the same side as the people running the country. Not only we at SRC felt that way, of course, but much more important, those kids out in SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and people down at SCLS (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and others felt that way. Sometime near the date of Kennedy's election, Harold got a little extra money from the Rockefeller Brothers. We put together this project, which eventuated in a publication you may have seen around, called The Federal Executive and Civil Rights. It was a very heady thing for me, because I did that. Harold got the money, and he said we'd do this thing, and he asked me to do it. The process of putting that together was, to me, almost more important than the result. I got Dan Pollitt to do a first paper, and then I recruited twenty or thirty people to review Pollitt's paper. Then we had a meeting up in Washington, where I got about a dozen people to come. We all sat around for a whole day at the Hotel Willard, talking about it. That meeting was attended by several people who were, by that time, in the Kennedy Administration. There was Harris Wofford, and Adam Yarmalinsky, and Berl Bernhard, who was a likable fellow. I can't remember whether Burke was there or not. Anyway, we began to feel like we were part of that thing going on up there. And Harold left to set up at the Potomac Institute, his main function was to be a sort of private outpost for the government, which is the way it was until Kennedy was assassinated.
HELEN BRESLER:
Was he encouraged to do that by key members?
LESLIE W. DUNBAR:
Well, I don't know. It was Stephen Currier's idea, but Currier was always talking so closely with people like Burke Marshall and others that, who knows? This is parenthetical, but the main advantage of the Potomac Institute. . . . Whenever I'd go to Washington, I'd end up in the evening at the Potomac, and around five o'clock the liquor would start flowing. Everybody would come in there. You'd see everybody, Burke Marshall, Seigenthaler, Harris Wofford, all dropped by for a drink. All kinds of associating would go on. I told Harold his chief function was dispensing liquor. I think, by the time I took the directorship, I was not only thinking of SRC as playing a part in the mind-changing in the South. I was seeing it also as being part of this thing coming out of Washington, and as being supportive of the leadership coming from there. I changed my mind about that at Albany, when I got into conflict with the Department of Justice. It was my emancipation from the view that we could play a role supportive of. . . .
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did other things happen along the way before Albany that began to change your mind, or was it a very sudden change?
LESLIE W. DUNBAR:
Well, Albany was not sudden. Albany went on. I can remember once saying to Burke Marshall over the phone that he must stop trying to play a mediating role, or at least to stop asking me to be part of it. I didn't say it quite that tactlessly. Thenceforward, Burke stopped talking to me, that is, he stopped talking to me about Albany. And I think that was my emancipation from the role of being part of the government.
HELEN BRESLER:
Can you give an example of how you did succeed, and then how the Albany thing did not?
LESLIE W. DUNBAR:
It's become fashionable, in the way things unfortunately become fashionable in our so-called intellectual circles, to say Albany was a failure. Well, it may have been. But Albany was a failure, I think, objectively, of the Department of Justice. They were new to the job-we were all new, in a way, then. The Department, through Burke Marshall and others, refused to exercise any kind of an official role, and tried to be informal mediators. What I told Burke that day was to stop trying to be a private person. Again, I won't claim that those were my words, but that's what I was saying. "Stop trying to be a private person. You're the Assistant Attorney General of the United States. Go down there and act like an official." And they did not do that. Their intention was to mediate, to settle it, to get everybody. . . . And it did not work. People ended up in terrible frustration in Albany. It had as much to do as anything with the souring of some of the younger SNCC people. It had a good bit to do with embittering relationships between SNCC and SOLO. Everybody came out of Albany feeling frustrated as hell, mad as hell, bitter as hell. I think the Department of Justice has a fair share of that blame.