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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 again emphasizes how the situation in Albany, Georgia, in the early 1960s sparked a change in how the Southern Regional Council understood its role in the civil rights movement. Elaborating on why he believed the Justice Department did not do more to help the civil rights activists at this important juncture, Dunbar explains how John F. Kennedy's main concern was with foreign policy and maintaining friendly relationships with (white) Southern congressmen. Growing awareness that the administration had only a limited commitment to supporting civil rights prompted the SRC to adopt as their primary objective the effort to help African American-led political organizations.

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 think after Albany, though, I continued to see SRC as playing this mind-changing role. And I continued to see SRC as playing a role supportive of other people's leadership, but the other people were no longer the Administration, the other people were the blacks. I think that, fairly consistently after Albany, anything we did at SRC was predicated on the conviction that the leadership here was black, and that our role was to be supportive of their leadership, but somewhat independent of it, in the sense that we could be critical, and also in the sense that we could sometimes help avoid mistakes. I don't know whether we did that or not, but we tried. From the time we set up the Voter Education Project, it seemed very clear to me that the Southern Regional Council's main role, during the tough days of the early sixties, was to help the black organizations, specifically through VEP, but in other ways too. I remember making my report at the annual meeting, maybe in 1961, and saying-we'd just set up the Voter Education Project-and I said, "This has to be a case where the tail does wag the dog." I meant that, too. I don't think we ever did anything after that that I could see would have an adverse influence on VEP.
What's your sense of why the Justice Department acted as it did in Albany? Why wouldn't they be more aggressive, and use the powers that they had?
I think there were a lot of reasons for that. To begin with, John and Robert Kennedy had a very cautious. . . . At that time, I don't think they had any personal commitment to civil rights. I'm not sure that John Kennedy ever acquired one. He may have. I think that Robert Kennedy probably did. They did not in 1961 and '62. They also had an exaggerated estimation about the reservoirs of responsibility or good will among white southerners. Keep in mind that Griffin Bell was John Kennedy's campaign manager in Georgia in 1960. The closest friend of the Kennedys in Georgia, and maybe in the whole South, was Bobby Troutman, in Atlanta. I had a peculiar relationship with that scoundrel. Bobby Troutman was a friend of the Kennedy family's. Keep in mind too, that John Kennedy had a personal friendship with Senator George Smathers, one of the rascals of American politics. He and John Kennedy were personally close. Thirdly, I think, Kennedy, coming out of the Senate, had a strong sense about the potency of these people who ran the Congress of the United States. He had these notions of what you had to do to get along with them. He came into office on a platform of narrowing the missile gap, and doing more about Castro, and going wherever freedom calls us, and other such things as that. Those were the main things in his mind, and the getting along relationships with southern Congressmen meant a lot to him, as I guess they have to mean to any President.