Leslie Dunbar: Indispensable civil rights ally

Children’s Defense Fund

When foundation and civil rights and antipoverty leader and supporter Leslie Dunbar died Jan. 4 at 95, the Children’s Defense Fund and many civil rights and public interest organizations that have worked over the decades to prevent voter suppression, hunger and poverty lost a strategic, thoughtful, long-term friend. Leslie was one of the most creative, engaged, informed and courageous foundation leaders during a major inflection time in our nation. He was an indispensable ally as the Civil Rights Movement struggled to close the huge gap between racial creed and deed and as hunger and poverty bubbled up to national consciousness with the War on Poverty and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.

As a White child growing up in Depression-era West Virginia, Leslie would have seemed an unlikely candidate for the key role he played over many decades to ensure justice for poor and non-White citizens. While serving as director of the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta civic and business association, Leslie worked with King and other leaders during what he called “a time of mind-changing in the South.” He was a regular fixture following the 1964 Freedom Summer.

As head of the Field Foundation from 1965-1980 Leslie left an enduring positive impact saving lives and strengthening institutions, many of which still exist – including CDF as we evolved from our parent organization the Washington Research Project in 1973. Many of the young organizations Field helped seed and fund in a sustained way during this burgeoning movement building period to end hunger and poverty still exist and have endured over more than four decades thanks to the strong and long term foundation support the Field Foundation provided.

The Children’s Defense Fund and I are direct beneficiaries of Leslie’s wisdom and long-term support. After meeting him in Mississippi as a young attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, I moved to Washington to serve as counsel and federal policy liaison for King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which Field helped support. Widespread hunger and poverty were sapping the spirits and bodies of tens of thousands of poor Black Mississippians.

I decided to move to the nation’s capital after repeated brutal battles with Mississippi’s Jim Crow congressional delegation over efforts to kill the transformative Head Start program after the State of Mississippi turned down the desperately needed Head Start funds as so many callous states today have turned down Medicaid coverage for their needy uninsured citizens.

When a coalition of community groups, the Child Development Group of Mississippi, applied for and won the federal Head Start money the state declined to use, we had huge refunding battles, which Leslie helped us through. And after the Department of Agriculture continued dragging its feet on getting food to starving children and families who were brought to national light by Senator Robert Kennedy’s visit to the Mississippi Delta, Leslie and the Field Foundation funded doctors to visit and document severe hunger and malnutrition among Mississippi’s Black children.

Not knowing how I would support myself in Washington, and with no office to go to, I left Mississippi with one check from the Field Foundation in my hand to open up what became the first independent non-government funded public interest law office seeking to provide a voice for poor and non-White citizens in the federal policy arena. That grant enabled me to rent a small office and hire a skeletal staff for the Washington Research Project to support the Poor People’s Campaign.

The Washington Research Project began in 1968. With Field Foundation anchor support joined later by other funders, we were able to play a strong leadership role over the next years documenting the misuse of federal Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds and suing major Southern employers who discriminated against Black citizens. We also followed up on key anti-hunger demands of King’s Poor People’s Campaign for which we served as federal policy liaison. It became clear in the post King-Kennedy era that poor adults faced a shrinking constituency and that focusing on children to help prevent adult poverty was a sound and strategic strategy so the CDF was born in 1973.

The needs of children out of school, without homes, and without health care were carefully documented and followed up on with Leslie’s support. These reports provided the groundwork for ongoing advocacy to assure millions of children access to health care, nutrition, Head Start, child care, a right to education if disabled, escape from adult jails in many states, and protections for children in foster care and in need of mental health supports. The first juvenile justice arm of the CDF was headed by Judge Justine Wise Polier, a great retired juvenile court judge in New York City and was lodged in the Field Foundation’s offices in New York City. Under her leadership, CDF prepared groundbreaking reports including Children in Adult Jails – after her staff visited 500 jails across America and found children in adult jails everywhere; Children Without Homes; Children of Women Prisoners; and Unclaimed Children, about the unmet mental health needs of children. All came from that era of strong Field Foundation support under Leslie’s leadership.

As a wise and farsighted philanthropic leader, Leslie was willing to invest in institutions and people who demonstrated effectiveness and outcomes from the bottom up and not from the top down. The Field Foundation stuck with a network of public interest advocates over many decades to ensure continuity of impact. How I hope many more foundation leaders like Leslie will emerge going forward. His long term investment in antipoverty and human rights groups are all living testaments to his foresight and leadership. Words cannot convey the debt of gratitude I and so many others owe him for his wisdom and commitment to racial and economic justice and for seeding sound leaders who carry on today and are training the servant leaders of tomorrow for the next transforming movement we must and will have to end poverty beginning with our children.

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote, “There are those who struggle for a day and they are good. There are those who struggle for a year and they are better. There are those who struggle all their lives. These are the indispensable ones.” Leslie Dunbar was truly one of the indispensable ones over the long span of his useful life in building a more just America.

Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to http://www.childrensdefense.org.


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