In a quiet, low-key way, Greenbrier County native Leslie Dunbar made significant contributions to the civil-rights movement in the United States. Born in Lewisburg in 1921, Dunbar was the youngest child of Marion Leslie Dunbar and Minnie Lee Crickenberger Dunbar. His father was a merchant, farmer, and operated a saw mill. Adversely affected financially by the depression, the Dunbars moved to Baltimore.
Leslie Dunbar attended the University of Maryland but left before graduating to work at the Glenn L. Martin bomber factory in Middle River, Maryland, where he supervised construction of B-26 bombers. He went on to Cornell University where is received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in political philosophy and constitutional law. After graduation, he taught at Emory University and Mount Holyoke College.
In 1961, he became the executive director of the Southern Regional Council where he connected the organization with the grass roots civil-rights movement. With Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Roy Williams of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), they organized the Voter Education Project (V.E.P.) to registered disenfranchised voters in the south. Dunbar hired Vernon Jordan to direct the project. By 1965, when the Voting Rights Act passed, the V.E.P. had registered nearly 700,000 black voters.
Dunbar joined the Field Foundation in 1965. A liberal philanthropic organization, the Field Foundation was one of the few foundations that provided financial support to civil rights causes. Dunbar helped fund the Poor People’s Campaign, NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee. When the State of Mississippi tried to eradicate its Head Start program, Dunbar provided funds to keep it going. He supported Marian Wright Edelman as she organized the Children’s Defense Fund.
In 1980, Dunbar left the Field Foundation and worked at the United Negro College Fund and the Ford Foundation. He was an early supporter of the United Farm Workers Association and was an early and passionate objector of the Vietnam War.
Dunbar died at his home in New Orleans in 2017. Vernon Jordan described Dunbar, “In those days they didn’t call white people civil-rights leaders. But Leslie Dunbar was a civil-rights leader. He was one of us.”
Sources: New York Times, Civil-Rights Movement Archive (Tony Dunbar), SaportaReport, Columbia University Libraries.