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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 >>

Tenuous relationship between the Southern Regional Council and the Kennedy Administration

Dunbar discusses in more detail his interaction with the federal government in trying to garner executive support for the aims of the Southern Regional Council. Beginning with a description of a secret luncheon hosted by new Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Dunbar notes that the Justice Department made only tentative steps towards joining forces with the Southern Regional Council and other civil rights organizations in the early 1960s. He goes on to discuss the reaction of the White House and Congress to his handbook, "Federal Executive and Civil Rights," which enumerated measures towards racial justice that the executive branch could take sans legislation. Dunbar's assessment of these interactions demonstrates how the SRC had a tenuous relationship at best with the Kennedy administration which was only willing to take nominal steps in supporting the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.

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

I never met Robert Kennedy more than three times. Did you ever hear about that little off-the-record lunch that we had? I think this sort of symbolizes a lot that was happening then, too. It suggests some of the naivete, and the stupidity, and the ignorance, and everything else that was going on. Early in 1961, Robert Kennedy asked Ralph McGill, or maybe McGill suggested it to Kennedy, I think that's the way it happened. At any rate, the idea was that McGill was to bring a few southerners up to the Department to give a seminar for Robert Kennedy and some of his leaders. So, McGill recruited a bunch of us. I think he pretty much turned the recruiting over to Harold, who by this time, was already in Washington. So, we went to Washington to have lunch with the Attorney General. I can't remember everyone who went. The only black I can remember being there was John Wheeler. I think Will Campbell was there, and Johnny Popham was there. I think Claude Sitton was there too. There were probably about ten-fifteen of us. We all assembled in the Attorney General's anteroom at the appointed time, and then were led through the Attorney General's office. It's huge, like an auditorium. He wasn't at his desk, but we were led by that, and behind his office was the Attorney General's private dining room. That's where we were all taken and seated. Kennedy made his appearance, and walked around and shook hands with everybody. My first realization was that he had a very limp handshake. That's something I guess a lot of politicians develop, because they don't like to get beat up. The small features of that lunch stay in my mind more clearly than the big ones. I don't know whether we were given seats, or whether we just sat down, but I ended up sitting next to John Doar, whom I'd never met before. There was Kennedy and Doar and Marshall, and there must have been a couple others, maybe Goodman and maybe Seigenthaler. The other thing I remember is that we were all brought in some chicken dish, except Kennedy, who had corn chowder and the other Department of Justice people had corn chowder, except John Doar, who had the chicken. So right then, I began to think pretty well of John Doar. He was the only guy there who wouldn't follow the leader. This is the way that meeting went. Kennedy, at some point, turned to McGill, and said, "All right, Mr. McGill, it's your meeting." And McGill made some statement, and then we went around the table, and each of us in turn said something. I seemed to be about midway around, and I didn't want to repeat things that other people had said. As each person said something, I eliminated that from my mind. I ended up making a little statement about the Citizens' Council. During all of this, Kennedy just sat and looked in the most non-expressive, but non-approving, kind of way. He seemed still pretty suspicious of all of us. We'd all been adjured that we were not to discuss this meeting with anybody. Finally, the circle was completed, and it got around to whomever was last man, and Kennedy said, "Thank you, gentlemen," and he got up and left. And that was it. The rest of us stayed there, minus him. We talked for a while. That was the state of the Kenedy Administration's top level approach at that time.
Had you written "Federal Executive and Civil Rights" before that?
Oh yes.
So that had been circulated in the Kennedy Administration?
That had been circulated. That was a big hit up there. They consumed that. We had to reprint a couple of times.
Why did they respond so positively to that? What was the impact of that report?
Because it told them to do what they wanted to do anyhow. It didn't tell them not to seek legislation, but it told them that these are things you can do without legislation, and that's what they wanted to do. They were not going to take on Congressional battles, but the White House was prepared to make a number of significant executive moves. There were some things they were not prepared to do. You know, the big agitation in 1961 and 1962 became housing. And the slogan became, "The President could do this with a stroke of the pen." That phrase, "stroke of the pen," became a slogan. There were things they were not prepared to do, and housing was one of them. But there were a lot of things they were prepared to do. Our little book itemized these things for them-"things that are available to you with your powers." I know it had a lot of influence, because they did a lot of those things. We put out one the next year, in 1963, which chronicled how much of that had been done. It was pretty impressive.