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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Esser's work with the Ford Foundation and the Southern Regional Council

Esser remembers the termination of the North Carolina Fund after five years of activity. The Fund closed down, but its initiatives continued to flourish. Esser, on the other hand, found himself dissatisfied with his new position with the Ford Foundation. Soon, Esser had taken his family to Atlanta, where as executive director of the Southern Regional Council (SRC), he sought to reconnect the organization with the black community and refocus it on poverty. Esser describes some of the organization's power struggles that eventually drove him from his position.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. 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

FRANCES WEAVER:
At the community level and all the other aspects of that. Well, George, the Fund wound up in 1968 and your final report to Mike Svirdoff is so compelling and so complete in its statement about why you and the staff felt that it shouldn't continue. I'd like to know just personally…. I mean, I know you supported your staff and I know what you wrote to Mike, but did you personally feel the time had come for the reasons filled out in the…
GEORGE ESSER:
Yes, I did. I realized that I had used up all the nickels that I had. I had a lot of nickels, you know, from the institute days, but I think that it wise and the other reason, Fran, that it was wise is that Terry had said in '63, "I don't think it ought to go past five years." And I tentatively agreed to that, and I guess Terry would have supported me if I had said, "No, I believe we ought to continue." But I had pretty deep respect for his political judgments. And he said in '68, "Well, I think we probably ought to terminate it." And I think he was right and I think I was right. I mean, I think we were right. We had used up…. You know, I think that we had tested out credibility on some issues dealing mainly with the black community, but I don't think we had lost our credibility. And I did not want to,,,, I mean it was very uncertain in '69 exactly how this was going to play out. Nixon had been elected, but the most recent, you know, where we remembered the spring and summer of '68 and it was a pretty rough summer. And also, I could tell that we had to separate ourselves from the community action agencies. And that we were too much identified with them. So I have no problems about that. I find it interesting that the foundations are still looking for intermediary organizations. I think intermediary organizations sometimes…. If we had concentrated on the research, let's say like Children's Defense Fund, that would have been one thing. Or like NC policy, you know, the ones that publish Insight, if we had done that, then I think it would have been one thing. But the fact that we were involved in movements, I thought made it important that we probably terminate. Now, I think the fact that both MDC and LHDC and particularly MDC have survived is important and they're important links. And of the community actions agencies that we helped support, ten of the eleven are still going.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Still going? You have said on an earlier tape they've become pretty bureaucratic, pretty entrenched.
GEORGE ESSER:
That's right. I don't think they're near…. well, part of it is the leadership, part of it is the structure of support from the Federal and state governments.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Well, George, when the Fund closed, you went with Ford as project advisor?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, I've never been absolutely satisfied with the way those negotiations went. I think that when Mike got that long memo, he said, "Well, I will follow your judgment," but he said, "then I would like you to come on the Ford staff." So we talked about that back and forth and the initial idea was that I was prepared to move to…. I remember talking to Fred about it. I was prepared to move to New York and then Knight said, "Well, why don't you think about staying where you are and being our advisor for the south." Well, it was a lot easier.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yeah, and with children.
GEORGE ESSER:
And with the children. And they worked out a very nice arrangement, so I got an office uptown at 212 Rosemary. Mel Rastis had owned the building. It was right behind the old School of Social Work is now, behind the old institute. And Lucy came with me and Jim Burney was able to handle [unclear] with some remaining Fund funds and we got a little black gal, Terry Cobb, from Chapel Hill as secretary. And that was February of '69. And I was there June of '72. I found it interesting. I was both advisor to the Division of National Affairs and was dealing primarily with social problems, but I was also dealing with some with the Public Administration issues and governance issues. And I was available. The way it was handled I went with Ford staff on the initial visits to new projects. That was with Hillary Feldstein whom we visited this summer. I did a lot of traveling. And Hillary always said, "without you I never would have gotten to understand what I was doing." But I also did a lot of monitoring. After grants were made, I would come in and, you know, interview and write up how projects were doing.
FRANCES WEAVER:
A lot of travel?
GEORGE ESSER:
A lot of travel. I was traveling anywhere from five to fifteen days a month. And you know, some of it was very pleasant. I realized in '71 that the pressure was finally off, but then I was an advisor. I was not a program officer.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Right. Sounds like little chance for creativity.
GEORGE ESSER:
So, that meant that I was not making the final decisions. And paul Ildesocker sensed this and had me visit him for three days. And the only feelers that I got that I should have followed up on, I had a feeler from both social work and education at this institution, but I had a real feeler from Joel at Duke. And I think I probably didn't…. Well, I didn't want to feel obligated to Terry. And I don't think it would have meant that much, but I think that Joel was a little surprised when I went to Atlanta because he had in mind asking me to join the Institute [unclear] staff. And in many ways, that would have been good and in many ways it would have been bad. In retrospect, I was not very happy in Atlanta. Mary was not very happy in Atlanta, but our children were very happy. And so, as a result of moving to Atlanta, I think that our children, all three of them, were better off than if they had stayed in Chapel Hill. And they enjoyed being in Washington. Washington was all right, but I was not unhappy to leave it.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That was really bureaucratic.
GEORGE ESSER:
That was really bureaucratic. And you know, when I think about Atlanta, I have to feel that it broke the mold. It broke the Chapel Hill mold for the children and at a time when Chapel Hill was…. Well, as you recall when you brought them back, it was not a good time to raise children.
FRANCES WEAVER:
It was very difficult. In fact, we often felt—and I feel to this day—that the best thing that happened to my children was getting out of Chapel Hill in 1968. And the India experience was an A+ on top of that, but getting out of Chapel Hill…
GEORGE ESSER:
I think you're absolutely right. Fred and I had lunch one day, I remember, down in the western part of Chapel Hill in late '67 or early '68 and we both agreed that it was probably important to the children, as well as for us.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yeah, yeah. You could get stuck here. George, the years of your relationship with the Southern Regional Counsel are well documented in all the literature and papers of the Southern Regional Counsel; many of which I think now are where? Morehouse College? Where did they put them?
GEORGE ESSER:
Atlanta University.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Atlanta University. What I really want to talk about is number one: What goals you went to the SRC with and number two: Who were the people on the SRC in those years who you feel weilded the greatest clout? I have the list of the executive committee here that I xeroxed out of an annual report.
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, I felt that when I first went there, and in retrospect, I guess I went there more for my respect for vivian Henderson first and Ray Wheeler second. And I still feel, I mean, they were great people. I felt that the staff at Southern Regional Counsel, from my observation in working with the Ford Foundation, of being closely thrown [unclear] As far back as '68, I remember bringing the Fund staff and the SRC staff together for a retreat at Jackal Island. And the SRC staff had gotten pretty bureaucratic and did not have the right communication with the black community that I felt was important.
FRANCES WEAVER:
And they were, at that time, the whole purpose of the SRC was research into civil rights and the black condition.
GEORGE ESSER:
And it was not only research. It was leadership.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Leadership as well as research?
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah. And so I made an effort, first, to get black staff. And I think that the two primary black staff people that I chose had many strengths, but they also had weaknesses and the weaknesses eventually were…. Harry Buie was deputy, but I got him by saying, "You and I are going to have a collegial relationship." And there was an Episcopal minister in Mississippi. He had done a lot of good things, but Harry was not only very bright and we shared many of the same values, but he was also out for Harry and he was a manipulator. And so, then there was a graduate at Princeton named George Harris who Paul called me about. And George had a lot of good ideas, but he was the kind who could talk and write and you thought he was sort of a brilliant director, but he could never quite finish it. So, changing the staff in the long run was a very difficult task. And Vivian, the president of Clark College on the Ford board of trustees, Vivian understood and agreed with me on what was going on and what I had to do. As long as he lived, we had our financial problems, but he and I were in agreement.
FRANCES WEAVER:
And he was president?
GEORGE ESSER:
And he was president. When he died, all of a sudden, it blew up. It was obvious that…
FRANCES WEAVER:
Was it a power struggle in the board?
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah, and Pat Derian was right at the heart of it.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Was she? I wondered. I saw her name on the list and I wondered about that.
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, she was right at the heart of it. And she didn't…. I don't know if it was personal or what. She was worried about whether we were financially…. But she was elected president and she never realized how much I had to do with her being elected president. But I thought it was important because she was vice president, that she be elected president. And the people I thought were not friends…. I was trying to expand the concern of SRC to include poverty in the south as well as race relations in the south. Julius Chambers wanted to stick to race relations.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Race only? That's interesting.
GEORGE ESSER:
Paul Gaston was the man who teaches at the University of Virginia. And Paul is very bright, but he wanted to stick with race. Ray Wheeler understood what the poverty issue was, but Ray was a very fine person, but he never understood the finances or the financial issue, the financial problems. So when Vivian died, it was clear to me in retrospect, that he was the one who was holding the board together.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Ray Wheeler was?
GEORGE ESSER:
No. Vivian. And so Pat came in as president and she spent a month—I knew something was bothering her—she spent a lot of time putting together a financial analyses. You know, you look at some things from a financial analysis point of view and it says, "A" and you look at it from another point of view and it says, "B." Well, they were looking at it completely different than I was. Plus the fact that my leaving cost them about a million dollars in grants that I had arranged. They never understood that. They were looking at the short range and I was looking at the long range. So we had a very stormy meeting in May of 1976, three months after Vivian died. And it was obvious that they wanted to pull back on purpose. They wanted to pull back on staff and they didn't agree with some program things I had proposed. So after dinner, they went into an executive session and Mary and I went to a movie. And we came back and there was a call there; Pat wanted to see me. And she said, "We had a meeting." It was only nine out of eight…. Some staff were very upset with me. They felt that with a full board…
FRANCES WEAVER:
You mean it wasn't the full board?
GEORGE ESSER:
It wasn't the full board. And they felt with a full board that…. It was a vote of five to three. They asked for my resignation and I was fed up with them. And so I said, "Okay, You know, I'm not here to fight for myself."
FRANCES WEAVER:
And to fight a board.
GEORGE ESSER:
And to fight a board, and so I agreed to resign. And we did not have a very…. The thing that really burned me up was that from March until it was all over, they never asked me…. They took their interpretation of the books and they never asked me for my interpretation of programs or of anything. And so I said, "Okay."
FRANCES WEAVER:
So they winged it as a board without….
GEORGE ESSER:
And so I said, "Okay, if that's the way you feel about it." I mean, I wrote…. And then they tried to cut my severance that they had agreed to. Well, it was not much. It was five months. And I said, "No, you've agreed to it and I've announced it." And I announced it as my decision because I felt that it was important that the SRC maintain a good image in the region. And I think that the young man or the man who has been the director in the last twelve or thirteen years, Steve Suitts, is a good man. I have no problem with him. But I do not have good relations with many of those people.