Remembering Harold and Marge
By Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 17-18
At the Atlanta/Fulton County Public Library November 19, 1992, Harold Fleming, former director of the Southern Regional Council, and Marge Manderson, long-time program officer, researcher, and writer, were memorialized by family and friends. Leslie Dunbar offered the following words.
MY GOOD FORTUNE and privilege have been to know well both Harold and Marge. They were good and noble people, whom I cherished as friends.
I worked under Harold at the Council, and later tried to live up to his example, his many examples, as his successor. When I first came to the Council’s staff it was Marge, who had already been there for four years, who broke me in—she was to be my assistant—and who with her unflagging commitment to the Council worked with me during the next several full and challenging and always exciting years.
Harold was a superb leader. He was marvelous in his discernment of opportunities, in his ability to seize the moment. Today as the nation in its present troubled state is about to bring new government to Washington after the long years of Republican misrule I’ve been reflecting on that similar time in 1960 and 1961. The election results were hardly in when Harold set me and others to work on a study of what the new President and his administration could do for civil rights through executive authority and acts without recourse to a Congress, still then dominated by opponents, led by Southern Senators and Representatives.
The result was our book-length publication, The Federal Executive and Civil Rights, which was on the desks of the new administration almost as soon as it arrived, and which became its road-map, setting directions which it mostly followed. This capacity of awareness of what could be done was carried by Harold when he moved on to Washington. During my own tenure as Executive Director, the Council’s most valuable contribution was the Voter Education Project. That began with a phone call from Harold to me, saying in effect, “Why didn’t you undertake to organize a coordinated voter registration drive?”
Harold was all that, and more besides. In my remarks at the lovely memorial service last month in Washington I mentioned that what had struck me first of all when on that morning in 1958 I reported for my first day of work was that all the male staff were wearing coats and ties, that our usual daily routine was to go for lunch to Herrens, at that time the lunch place of Atlanta’s professional and business elite. This was more than a matter of style, for it grew from his conviction, his insistence, that the South
and its graciousness and civility belonged as much to us radicals as to any Southerners. We always, through his leadership and example, saw ourselves as, whatever popular opinion of the time might hold, the “enduring South.”
Marge Manderson was the best proofreader and copy editor I’ve ever known and been blessed with having the assistance of. My rule while at the Council was that nothing went out to the public without her check. But Marge was far more than that. Marge was always ready for what had to be done.
Her steady belief in the importance of the Council and of what it was doing was inspiring to all of us who worked alongside her.
Harold came to the Council in 1946. Marge in 1954. What stamina! I think we do best in knowing them this afternoon by pausing a moment to think on this institution, this Southern Regional Council, and what it has meant that it could hold the loyalties of such people for so long.
The Council was born in a series of meetings—Durham, Atlanta, Richmond—during World War II. They were all essential, but the first, the one in Durham, has the most meaning, and should be, I believe, in the Council’s constant memory. We should never forget or overlook that the Council had its origin in a gathering of black Southerners, speaking out of their felt disadvantage and pain and appealing as they did so to their vision of what a free and fair South and nation could be. Some of those people who assembled there in Durham I had the privilege later of working with—working for—during my service here.
Dr. Gordon Hancock, the principal organizer of that meeting, became my friend. Others who were there and who were still active in my time included Dr. Rufus Clement and Dr. Benjamin Mays. From the Atlanta and Richmond meeting I knew through later association Guy Johnson, Paul Johnson, Ralph McGill, and our beloved Josephine Wilkins. These were great Southerners, great Americans, best of all great persons. They made the Council, put on it that imprint which could for years hold a Harold and Marge captive. Like them were others under whom they, and I, worked. Ones such as Paul Christopher, James McBride Dabbs, Albert Dent, Joseph Haas, Al Kehrer, Dorothy Tilly (according to the organizational chart she was staff, under me, but I did not make the mistake of taking that seriously), John Hervey Wheeler, Raymond Wheeler, Marion Wright Stephen Wright, and many more who so excellently guided me through demanding years.
They also shared with me, as with Harold and Marge, the consciousness that the Council had not, and probably could never have, fulfilled all the grand hopes of that process begun in Durham. Yet, we were not thereby excused from being all that we could be. And what was that? What did Harold and Marge discover that led them to give devoted service to the Council? Let me suggest five characteristics which have always defined this unique institution.
First has been a conviction that democracy must be inclusive of all the people who make up our society. President Clinton has stated it well: we have not a person to waste. The old supposed tension between freedom and equality is false. Only where persons count as equal can any be free, only where freedom exists can equality be established.
Secondly, the Council has known that in the South and in the nation as a whole, freedom and equality can be realized only through the combined efforts of blacks and whites—indeed, of all ethnic groups.
Thirdly, from its beginning days the Southern Regional Council has committed itself first of all to building democracy in the South, knowing, however, that an ascending South has to be linked to the best of the rest of the nation. A self-respecting South has been the goal. The road to it is through linkage with free women and men everywhere.
Fourthly, the Council has always been driven to do well whatever it does, whether it be writing well, researching well, organizing well, or thinking clearly. Only the best, only the trustworthy. The Council lives by the trust others have in its work.
And finally, it has been characterized, as Harold so well exemplified, by its having a clear-sighted view of what ought to be done next, and next after that, and a workable way of attaining it.
These characteristics defined the Southern Regional Council which Harold and Marge served so well. If we truly honor them, the Council will hold to them as they did.