Leslie Dunbar, behind-the-scenes figure in Atlanta's Civil Rights movement, has died

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

While the ice fell Friday night, former U.S. ambassador and mayor Andrew Young called to inform us of the death of Leslie Dunbar, the man who helped organize efforts to desegregate Atlanta in its early days and later arranged financial backing for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "poor people's march" on Washington in 1968 -- after King's assassination.

“In the early days, in the 1950s, the movement for racial justice was largely led by liberal white people. He was one of them,” Young said.

Dunbar arrived in Atlanta in 1958, joining the Southern Regional Council, before King returned to Atlanta from his pastorship in Birmingham, and became an essential part of the coalition that guided Atlanta’s largely peaceful transition (compared to the rest of the South) to a biracial society.

“He was quiet, he was very unassuming, but every time he opened his mouth, he would state some truth that nobody wanted to face,” Young said. “But he was such a Southern gentleman, you couldn’t get offended.”

If you've got the time, a website called Documenting the American South has an compressed, 12-minute interview with Dunbar, made in 1978, on his leadership role in the SRC in Atlanta. One portion from the transcript:

"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.

Dunbar’s son, Troy, a New Orleans attorney, has put together an obituary for his father that we include here:

His family was an early victim of the Great Depression and left the Greenbrier Valley for Baltimore, where Dunbar met his future wife, Peggy Rawls.  He attended the University of Maryland until World War II began, when he left the university to supervise the assembly of B-26 bombers at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant.

His clandestine (so they thought) marriage to Peggy, a nursing student, was reported in a Baltimore paper. The marriage violated the rules of her school and resulted in her expulsion. After the war, and without a college degree, Dunbar was admitted to Cornell University where, while supporting a young baby, he earned a doctorate in political philosophy and constitutional law.

Dunbar went on to teach political science at Emory University. In 1951 he joined the Atomic Energy Commission as chief of community affairs  -- overseeing the sudden arrival of workers and scientists in Aiken, S.C., as the AEC's immense Savannah River Plant was brought online. He returned to academia to teach at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, where he chaired the political science department.

But in 1958, he answered his true calling, motivated by what he called "Southern-born common sense," and retuned to Atlanta to join the staff of the Southern Regional Council. "It was a time of mind-changing in the South," Dunbar once said, "and SRC was central to that." He was with the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council during the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights movement, as its director of research (1958 to 1960) and its executive director (1961 to 1965).

Dunbar was a passionate voice for acknowledging and following the black leadership of the Southern struggle. With Southern Leadership Christian Conference's Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, he helped to create the Voter Education Project, using the funds of the SRC to sponsor it.

Dunbar hired Wiley Branton and later, Vernon Jordan, Jr., to direct the project which is credited with registering 2 million African-American voters in the 1960's.   Dr. Dunbar was a guest at the signing of the Voting Rights Act at the White House in 1965.

Also in 1965, Dunbar moved with his family to New York to direct the Field Foundation, a philanthropy founded by the Chicago department store family and dedicated to child welfare and civil rights. In that role, and until 1980, he championed (and funded) many causes critical to the enduring Civil Rights struggle. These included major financial support to maintain the existence of the Friends of the Children Head Start program in Mississippi in the face of state efforts to eradicate the program.

Dunbar steered Field Foundation funds to provide substantial, probably primary, support for Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign, which continued through organizational difficulties after Dr. King's assassination [in April 1968].  Dunbar was instrumental in providing financial sustenance to the fledgling Children's Defense Fund under the direction of Marian Wright Edelman, and he was an early supporter of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers' Association, and of La Raza, a leading Latino advocacy organization.

"He has made such a difference in my life and so many others. I still gain strength thinking about his creative philanthropy and persevering friendship and support," Edelman said upon Dunbar's passing. "There would unlikely be a Children's Defense Fund without his investing in the seeds of the  Washington  Research Project that sprung from the Poor People's Campaign and evolved into CDF. He enabled all of these. His risk taking and creative and long term investment philanthropy is unmatched today. So many of the anti-hunger and anti-poverty fighters today are his children."

Dunbar was an early and passionate objector to the war in Vietnam – leading to his being escorted by the U.S. Capitol police, in a dignified way, from a sit-in at the House of Representatives protesting funding for the war.

Dunbar was a "scholar-at-large" with the United Negro College Fund in 1984-1985, and taught at Xavier University in New Orleans. His working career concluded at the Ford Foundation, where he published, "Minority Rights, What Has Happened to Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians & Other Minorities in the Eighties."

This was one of several books he wrote, one of the last being "Looking for the Future, A Meditation on Political Choice," a commentary on American militarism and democracy published in 2012 when he was 91.

"Retiring" to Durham, North Carolina, and well into his seventies, Dunbar became a volunteer in the "guardian ad litem," or CASA, program and narrowly lost a campaign for election to the Durham city school board. He became active in the social justice ministry of the Watts Street Baptist Church, and in 1992, along with its pastor, the Rev. Mel Williams, founded the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Throughout his adult life he maintained a commitment to dozens of grassroots civil rights, labor, and political groups.

Dunbar's wife, Peggy Rawls Dunbar of Baltimore, Md., his daughter Linda Kravitz Knox, and foster son Van Nha, pre-deceased him. So did his brothers and sisters. He is survived in New Orleans by his son, lawyer and author Tony Dunbar and his partner Nancy J. Shoemaker, and by his grandson Samuel Rawls Price Dunbar; by his granddaughter Rachel Kravitz of Bethesda, Md.; his son-in-law Hugh Knox; and his "adopted" Knox grandchildren Kate and Tim and Rebecca and her husband George Rice.