Leslie W. Dunbar
(1922 — 2017)


As remembered by Tony Dunbar
January 9, 2017

In Remembrance

Dr. Leslie W. Dunbar passed away peacefully in New Orleans on January 4, 2017, three weeks shy of his 96th birthday. Dr. Dunbar was the youngest of ten siblings — and a native of Greenbrier County, West Virginia. His family was an early victim of the Great Depression and left the Greenbrier Valley for Baltimore, where he met his future wife, Peggy Rawls. He attended the University of Maryland until World War II started 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 and caused her expulsion according to the rules of her school. After the war, and without a college degree, he was admitted to Cornell University where with a young baby he earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy and Constitutional law.

He went on to teach political science at Emory University. In 1951 he moved to the Atomic Energy Commission as Chief of Community Affairs - overseeing the sudden arrival of workers and scientists in Aiken, South Carolina, 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," he said, "and SRC was central to that." He was with the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council (SRC) during the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement, as its director of research (1958 to 1960) and its Executive Director (1961 to 1965). He 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. He hired Wiley A. Branton and later, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., to direct the Project which is credited with registering two 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, Mr. 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. He 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. He 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.

At the time of his passing, Ms. Edelman said, "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. 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."

Dr. Dunbar was an early and passionate objector to the War in Viet Nam — leading to his being escorted by the Capitol police, in a dignified way, from a sit-in at the House of Representatives protesting funding for the War.

He 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, Leslie became a volunteer in the "guardian ad litem," or CASA, program and narrowly lost a campaign for election to the Durham School Board. He became active in the social justice ministry of the Watts Street Baptist Church, and in 1992, along with its pastor Rev. Mel Williams, founded the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.

Long a passionate critic of "Southern Congressmen," and later "Republican Congressmen" in general, he maintained his commitment to dozens of grassroots civil rights, labor, and political groups.

Mr. Dunbar's wife, Peggy Rawls Dunbar of Baltimore, Maryland, 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, Tony Dunbar with partner Nancy J. Shoemaker, and by his grandson Samuel Rawls Price Dunbar; by his granddaughter Rachel Kravitz of Bethesda, Maryland; his son-in- law Hugh Knox; and his "adopted" Knox grandchildren Kate and Tim and Rebecca and her husband George Rice.


As remembered by Hunter Bear (John Salter, Hunter Gray)
January 9, 2017

This is a good — relatively full — obituary of an old friend, Les Dunbar, whose contributions to the Southern Movement and human rights in general, embraced a very long stretch of time — a stretch packed with modestly delivered and extremely significant contributions.

It is he who once cordially remarked to me, "You'll always have a Wobbly heart, John." I told him I took that as a compliment.

The obituary mentions that, while living in Durham in the 1990s, he narrowly lost a school board election. When he had decided to run for that, he wrote, mentioning the name of his opponent, a lady of professional background. I knew precisely who she was — spouse of a lawyer first cousin of mine on my mother's side. Good people, Alabamians,Emory grads, they had moved to Durham a few years before.

I wrote him about this. "Fine people," I said, "but if I were voting in that Durham election, I'd vote for you, Les."

His response: "Now that is indeed a compliment."


As remembered by Jim Loewen
January 9, 2017

I knew "Mr. Dunbar" (I was young then.) mainly when he was at the Field Foundation. He gave a small grant annually to Dr. Ernst Borinski for his good work at Tougaloo College. Borinski used it for all kinds of purposes. Most importantly, he used the money to bring in speakers for his "Social Science Forum," the only ongoing lecture series in central Mississippi that brought in important speakers from around the nation and the world to speak to racially integrated audiences at Tougaloo College. We were treated to such luminaries as Herbert Aptheker, Pauline Frederick, /Ralph Ellison, and so many more, as well as people from Mississippi. Field funds also supported the little dinners that Borinski organized before each talk, which seated Tougaloo students with these luminaries, and also with Black and White residents of Jackson. Often at his little rickety tables of four, these guests would for their first time, whether 19 or 70, have their very first serious conversation over a meal and across racial lines.

"Les" (I grew older.) was an example of what Borinski called "an outside- insider" — some who used his position on the insider to help various "outside" causes. Henry David Thoreau said something like this once: "What the world needs is for people to do, when they become rich, what they said they would when they were poor." Les Dunbar never exactly became rich, but he did become in charge of lots of money, and he followed Thoreau's dictum exactly.

Earth, receive an honored guest.
Leslie Dunbar, laid to rest.


As remembered by John Dittmer
January 9, 2017

Thanks, Jim, for those good Tougaloo memories. I interviewed Les at his home in Pelham, NY (before he moved back South) and he gave me one of the best quotes for my Mississippi book. "The Kennedys," he said, "never realized you had to be on somebody's side in the South."


As remembered by Joan C. Browning
January 9, 2017

I thought Les was the smartest person I had met — and as I do the math, he was only in his mid forties, which now seems so very young. He described the settlement of his beloved Greenbrier County and much of Appalachia — I can still see his drawings, first the fertile land along the rivers were settled, then the next generation had to go up hill, with the last and poorest highest on the mountains. He returned for a few years to Renick, Greenbrier County WV, where he lived when we corresponded about my potential move there. At the Field Foundation, he gave Al Ulmer the first $25,000 to start the Federation of Southern Cooperatives — where I was the second person on staff. Many good works expedited by him. A good man, a good friend.


As remembered by Joyce Ladner
January 11, 2017

I knew Les Dunbar very well. He did a lot of good for the civil rights and civil liberties organizations. Les recommended me to join the board of the Field Foundation in New York (not to be confused with the Field Foundation of New in York) the mid-seventies when I lived in New York. It was a great experience. I served alongside Ruth Field, the wife of our founder Marshall Field, John Kramer, Jim Comer, Judge Justine Polier, Diane Ravitch and even Morris Abram. I learned a lot and was able to help fund a lot of organizations that did goood work.

It was Marshall Field's directive that the Foundation go out of business when the funds were depleted. Ruth Field carried out his wishes and the Foundation spent itself out of business in 1989.

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