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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 >>

Southern Regional Council and the Voter Education Program

Dunbar describes the establishment of the Voters Education Program. Through the VEP, the Southern Regional Council was chosen to distribute privately-donated funds to various civil rights groups for the purpose of voter registration and education in southern communities. According to Dunbar, this generated a degree of tension between the SRC and some of the larger civil rights groups who wanted more of a say in how the funds would be distributed. Dunbar and the SRC, however, were determined to make the most of the funding and especially wanted to help smaller, local groups who had a better idea of their own community's needs.

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 first heard about the idea from Harold. He asked me to come up to Washington, and I did. I met with Burke Marshall and Stephen Currier, and they had had prior meetings, but this is where I came in. I don't think there's any doubt about the fact that the idea for concentration on voter registration began with the Department of Justice. Whether it began with Robert Kennedy or with Burke Marshall is immaterial. They were identical twins in these things. They talked to Currier. Marshall was very close to Currier, and so was Wofford, and so was Berl Bernhard. Berl Bernhard was the Executive Director of the Commission on Civil Rights. Currier had established a close relationship with all these fellows, and they with him. He had the money. It was a great sorrow that Stephen and Audrey went down in that airplane in 1967. They were not like the Ferrys by a million light years, but they played a role equally important, and they had a whole lot more money. I came in at that point. The idea was very startling when it was broached to me. I don't remember exactly what went on in sequence after that, but we did have a couple more discussions. I will tell you that in every single discussion in these early weeks and months there was an understanding that there would be much more money made available than was, and that the Kennedys would see that money was provided, in addition to Currier. It was never said clearly that the money would be from the Kennedy Foundation, but that the Kennedys would take some responsibility for shoveling some money in, which they never did. One meeting led to another. Everything moved pretty fast. By the end of the summer we had this thing pretty well organized, and we hadn't begun talking about it until April or May. We had a couple of meetings in New York, and you apparently read a report that I wrote after one of them. John Wheeler was of enormous help to me in that I was a new boy, and I'd never met most of these people, and certainly they'd never had to deal with me. Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young were the only ones I knew. I knew Whitney before he left Atlanta. But they'd never had to deal with me, and it just made life bearable that John Wheeler sat beside me. I don't know whether people realized it, but John had a lot of stature with the civil rights leadership at that time in New York. Anyway, we put it together. I think I may have made my own contribution to VEP by insisting on a couple of things. One is that we would not be a conduit.
That the decisions would not come from the Taconic Foundation.
Secondly, I insisted at the very beginning, that VEP money would go to the five main groups but we would also reserve our right to distribute money to other groups. That was not what Wilkins, King, Young, et. al., had in mind. They resisted that very strongly. They had in mind that VEP would get a chunk of money, and we would then meet and decide how we could divide it up among them, and that was it. We didn't do that. They got their largest share in the first distribution, and from then on, their share began to decline, until, by the time Vernon Jordan took over, they were getting hardly anything.
Well, the big five. The money was going to local groups.
What kinds of groups did the money go to?
There were all kinds of little groups, all around the South, who would do voter registration. In Durham, for instance, you had your Durham Negro Voters' League. It didn't make any sense to give money to the SCLC, for example, to organize voter registration in Durham. In administering the voter project, we had our biggest trouble with SCLC. They weren't any good at voter registration. They wanted money for their own uses, and we had a couple of tense times with them.