Title: George Esser [ SRC 11 ]
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00093249/00001
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Title: George Esser SRC 11
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Interviewer: Susan Glisson
Publication Date: August 7, 2002
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Bibliographic ID: UF00093249
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
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SRC 11
Interviewer: Susan Glisson
Interviewee: George Esser
Date: August 7, 2002

G: This is Susan Glisson and I'm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with George Esser.

It is August 7, 2002. I very much appreciate your time, Mr. Esser.

E: Glad to have you.

G: Thank you. You really helped get this project off the ground and we appreciate

that very much.

E: Well, I think [the] Southern Regional Council [SRC] played a very critical role in

helping ensure [that] the South understood what the issues where. I've always

felt that it was remarkable that the South, on the whole, conformed to the civil

rights legislation as quickly as they did. That doesn't mean everybody did or that

they wanted to, but they did, and I think that the Southern Regional Council

deserves a lot of credit for helping [to] educate enough people to know that when

there was federal legislation, it was legislation to be obeyed. I think that a book

on the history of the Council's formation and program through that period is most


G: It's absolutely necessary and we definitely see that. Let's maybe go back a little

bit. Tell me a little bit about what you were doing, how you came to work with

SRC, and what you understood about their role. How did you see its work at the

time that you came to be involved with it?

E: Well, as I've told you, I have a legal background, although I've never practiced. I

was on the staff of the Institute of Government here in Chapel Hill, working

SRC 11 Esser, Page -2-

primarily with city government in terms of research and training. I helped initiate

the first year-long program for training of city employees and city managers who

had never had formal training. That program is still going very strongly. It's a

very strong program. We also had short courses for newly elected mayors and

councilmen. The way things were divided up at the Institute, I didn't worry about

finance officers or planners or whatever, that kind of training. I was concerned

with the overall condition of the city or the overall problems of city, and I enjoyed

it. It was a lot of fun, and we did a lot of good things. Some of the legislation

that I drafted is still...I think we still have the best annexation law in the country,

because cities can annex land when it meets a standard that we worked out,

population density. If there's agreement, there can be voluntary annexation, but

the city council can also annex land that has got a population density of two

persons an acre. That means that North Carolina cities, on the whole, their

boundaries grow with their population.

G: Right, which makes sense.

E: They have to provide services, of course, which the legislation covers. The

whole thing has worked out very well. At the same time, I also taught as a

member of a sort of a team, we taught two or three courses in the law school, we

taught a course in municipal administration, and the political science department.

Then, I was active in the Institute for Research and Social Services, which is the

research arm of the social science department. I was one of the few Institute of

Government staff who got so involved. As a result of that, I took part in some of

the research that was going on in the planning and political science departments

SRC 11 Esser, Page -3-

and sociology departments on some of the problems of urban communities.

Along the way, I believe it was at a conference in 1956, I met Paul Ylvisaker, who

has just gone with the Ford Foundation. He processed the grant to the Institute

for Research and Social Sciences, for three-quarters of a million dollars or

something like that, of which a $105,000 was to come to Institute for

Government for our efforts in making that research practical and useful. He's

now dead. He was terrific. That was in 1956 and I kept up with him. So, when

Derek Sandford hired Johnny Lee and began looking around for projects in the

state that [they] could begin to deal with problems of poverty, or problems of

education, they learned that I knew Paul and so they consulted me. As a result,

why they shifted their whole. The younger staff member working with city

planning wasn't very happy about it, but Ford Foundation had stopped funding

even innovative city-planning ventures back in about 1957. You don't fly in the

face knowing that you aren't going to get any support. So, I worked with the

governor's office and the Ford Foundation staff came down with the president in

July and confirmed the grant, and the Fund was organized [and] incorporated in

that month and effective August 1.

G: Of 1963.

E: [Yes,] of 1963.

G: So, this is the North Carolina Fund?

E: The North Carolina Fund was created and it. Harry and I had agreed on five

years, [but] it actually went five and a half. We closed the doors on January 31,

1969, but we kept it alive to get the final reports in and spend a little money and

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so forth. It was alive until sometime in 1972. It was a lot of money for a non-

profit organization to have, particularly one that Ford had asked us and I had

anticipated this and the governor's office finally agreed and we had direct

conversations with some of the black [African American] leadership in

Durham. John Wheeler, who was also very active in SRC, became a member

of the fund board. I had a great relationship with John. I mean, I learned one

hell of a lot from John and he supported me in everything I did. He would have

supported me more in SRC, but the problem was that he was quite ill at that

time. Well, I don't know what you know about the Fund, but we went through, as

I say, we had what Dave McCollum, who was an English sociologist, would call

"The Great North Carolina Essay Contest." We had communities come together

and submit proposals to us on how they would deal with the problems of poverty

if they had a little money. So, we picked eleven projects. We started out only

going to pick seven, but [with] the political considerations, we added four more.

The selection of those projects happened in April and we helped new projects

search and hire project directors. The Office of Economic Opportunity was

established that summer.

G: At the state level?

E: The Community Action Program in the Economic Opportunity Act was patterned

on the Ford Foundation Gray Area Programs and the committee on health and

human services. I forget the name of it. I believe it had "crime" in it, Community

and Criminal Justice or something like that. Anyhow, they were spending a lot of

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money and they had made grants to a good many of the Ford Foundation

Projects, but they had some projects of their own. We ended up as the only

state-wide project. Of course, as the Economic Opportunity Act got adopted and

matured, every county in the country was entitled to participate and every state

had state offices. I can understand why the Congress made it apply, but if they

had spent a little more time evaluating the experience of the existing projects,

they might have had greater success. But the Community Action Program, if you

know anything about it, was from 1967 on. Every time a crisis occurred in one

project in one state, the Congress or the department who was administering the

program would change the regulations so as to insure that crisis didn't happen

again. Of course, that meant other crises [would occur]. It also meant that the

discretionary power of a Community Action Program, whether it was county-wide

or two or three counties, was gradually eroded. For those eleven projects that

we supported, the federal money then became the base and our money became

the supplemental funds. It meant that not only did our projects have more

resources and more access to resources, but they also could take advantage of

more discretionary projects, because they had private money in addition to public


G: So they had a little more latitude than some of the other programs across the


E: A good deal more. Well, it was a fascinating six years. You know the records

[interviewee shows interviewer the files]. This is just the records of the Fund, this

is not the records of the eleven Community Action Agencies [laughing].

SRC 11 Esser, Page -6-

G: And that's a pretty thick notebook.

E: When it was first moved in, when we closed and they moved those files in, it took

up 541 linear feet of files. They've got it somewhat reduced now, but they got a

grant from the National Humanities program, back in the early 1990s, to

inventory the files and put them in acid-free containers and all of that. It's a well-

used source, but as a result of that. I cannot express how busy [we were]. We

experimented with elementary education, vocational education, with low-income

housing, mobility of labor force, and community organization. We had some

good community organizations in two or three places. We just experimented

with one hell of a lot of things and for a while we had a big staff, I mean,

relatively so. Beginning in 1967, we began spinning out things so that there

would be life...

G: ...beyond the project

E: ...to those ideas and projects, even though we were going to close by early 1969.

Well, there were four major organizations that were created, two of them still

exist today and one of them is a very strong organization that is regarded really

as a national leader in innovative, economic development and labor force

problems, MDC Incorporated here in Chapel Hill. The Low-Income Housing

Development Corporation still exists. They are headquartered in Charlotte, but it

is more producer than an experimenter in how you [run things]. For thirty years,

under the initial leadership it had, why, it experimented with ways of producing

low-income housing. We had one spin-off corporation that was in conjunction

with UNC and Duke, which focused on public education up through high school.

SRC 11 Esser, Page -7-

It some great work. The first director was Doc Hound who later was

Commissioner of Education. [He] was very effective, [and] who is doing a lot of

great research, a lot of good consultation in school systems. Finally, the director,

at one stage, this is after I went to Atlanta, got involved in a public controversy,

and university [UNC] and Duke and the State Department of Public Instruction

withdrew support. By that time of course, the Fund's support was already used

up. So, it doesn't exist. We also had, and [and it was] successful, a foundation

for community development that was based on support of community

organization. Not only community organization for seeking better services, but

also community organization for economic development. Many of the things that

are going on today successfully and the whole Community Development

Corporation were. Well, there are two projects that we support through the

initiative today, one in Durham and one in Wilson, that were first established by

his offshoot of the Fund back in 1969. But at the end of five years, [President

Richard M.] Nixon had come in, state leadership was quite different and Terry

Sanford's [governor of North Carolina] Foundations, Ford Foundations, had

decided to go slow on support of community organization. So, it really became a

problem of lack of resources.

G: When you all decided to just have the project last for five years, were you

anticipating those kinds of changes? What was the rationale behind it?

E: Well, the rationale was that Terry Sanford figured that it was bound to step on

toes and that five years was long enough for him to be involved, and that state

was not going to be involved, and that, during that time, we could figure out how

SRC 11 Esser, Page -8-

in January of 1967, Mary and I went off with Terry and Margaret Rose [Sanford,

the Governor's wife] and spent a long weekend and I went over with Terry the

options of creating these spin-off corporations and he liked them, so that's how

we came back and we sprung all off by mid-1968.

G: Did they take some funding with them or where they responsible for finding their


E: No, we split up the remaining funds from the Fund. The one on education had

been getting about a quarter of a million each year, the other three got from

$500,000 to $750,000, plus some federal funding. Ford Foundation funding was

given to those three organizations for a period of about three or four years. Mike

Smirnoff first had succeeded Mike Ylvisaker as Director of Domestic Affairs for

the Ford Foundation. He cut it off at first, funding of community organization as

a function. He said it was too risky. There were some people involved in some

places that were pretty, not disciplined, pretty activist, I mean, irresponsible


G: In what ways?

E: When you got riots going and some of the people had been in Community Action

Programs were involved when the first thing that would happen, why you would

get phone calls from angry mayors, angry congressmen, and angry senators.

The pressure got too much for Ford, so they. On the other hand, then they

began putting more money in former Community Action Agencies, but agencies

that were formed for economic development, sometimes other kinds of

community development. The MDC survived all the way through. It had its

SRC 11 Esser, Page -9-

periods of needing money and running behind, but now they...When they broke

beyond simply serving North Carolina, began to serve as consultants for

economic development in the South and for southern states, and began making

a record, they, for example. You know the Mid-South Foundation? Well, MDC

was given the responsibility of helping convert the piece of paper that created it

intoo [a] going organization. They picked George Pinik who was from North


G: I didn't realize that.

E: Then, they worked with it for about a year, and once it was active and a going

concern, why, they pulled out. They did the same with a Rural Economic

Development Center here in the state where the research staff, or Ford

Foundation-operated research program on community colleges, and now with

Ford Foundation's support are helping. David Dodson spent a lot of time last

year in Namibia helping Namibia establish a university. This spring, when the

Duke Endowment broke all the expectations and came up with ten million dollars

for rural development in North and South Carolina, they got MDC to implement it,

because they didn't have any staff for it. So, MDC has been a great success

and its got a good staff. LHDC (Low-Income Housing Development Corporation)

did pretty well under Bob Smith. I mean, Bob is experienced in housing and

wanted to do experimental projects. The fellow who's handling it now is a nice

fellow, but he has no sense of [the project], all he's doing is seeking projects to

produce and he's producing them. The Low-Income Housing Development

SRC 11 Esser, Page -10-

Housing Corporation has a contract, for example, with the Charlotte/Mecklenburg

[County] Housing Partnership and doing some of their work. In 1968, Mike

Smirnoff called me. He had been the director of the Community Action Program

that Ford and others supported in New Haven.

G: All right.

E: Then, he had done work for John Minsy and served for not quite a year as

Director of Human Resources for the City of New York. Then, he went with Ford

and so he asked me to, when the Fund closed, if I would come on and be the

representative in the South. It was a program that supported all the racial

projects in the South. Then, nationwide, I served as an advisor on public

administration programs.

G: Okay, before we go [on], because I want to hear about what you did with the

Ford Foundation, I wanted to ask you [a question]. You mentioned that there

was use of radio and film. You all had some innovative use of media with the

North Carolina Fund?

E: Well, one of the first staff people hired was a public information officer. I got Billy

Barnes, who was a North Carolinian, but who was at that time working with

Business Week out in Atlanta. Billy is still here in Chapel Hill [and he's a] terrific

guy. He was my savior. He advised me. When you're putting money out into

twenty-some counties, something is always going to go wrong. He said George,

[here's] one thing you [should] remember, when somebody sticks a microphone

under your mouth, say something, but don't worry about if you are misquoted in

SRC 11 Esser, Page -11-

the paper. He said, there are occasional times when you make for a correction,

but he says, generally, if you make for a correction, you are keeping the problem

alive. He says, if you don't say anything, he said most people forget it. It was

true. It worked out. He was a very innovative person and he developed radio

programs. We had a regular newsletter [and] regular news-releases. He would

prepare news-releases, he would help not only with us, but he was do it for

grantees. He had several staff people.

G: What were the goals of the radio programs?

E: Education. They were short, five minutes or something like that. They would

start out with a problem and then they would say what resources are available to

deal with this problem.

G: Did those programs deal with controversial issues like race?

E: Oh yes. There are transcripts of some of those programs, and Billy, I think, if

there is a lot of interest in that, Brian [Ward, historian of SRC and also of radio]

ought to come up and see Billy.

G: Do you know many stations broadcast them?

E: That year there were thirty-five. I think that there were two or three programs, as

I recall, but thirty-five stations pretty well covered the state. If you're going over

there, look up some of them. I think they've got transcripts of it. Now, the movie

,No Handouts for Mrs. Hedgepith, was about a black lady who defied all the

conventional wisdom of being on welfare. She was making her own way and

through her own efforts, and her children were doing the same. It was a well-

done movie. It got shown not only all over this state, but in a lot of other states,

SRC 11 Esser, Page -12-


G: How was it distributed? I mean was it college campuses that showed it?

E: Well, no. It was distributed primarily through public radio listening, NPR

[National Public Radio] and public TV. But again, if you want to talk to him, his

number is 942-6350, Billy Barnes, and he's still active. Tell him that I suggested

you call him.

G: That would be a great contact for Brian, I think.

E: We had pretty good luck with educational projects. There was a lot of regret. I

won't say criticism, but there was regret that we closed the Fund. Ford

Foundation wanted us to continue, but we opted for asking them to support the

spin-off corporations.

G: Why is that? Why that choice?

E: Main thing was, is that there was a feeling initially, and this was carried on, that

you use up your nickels. We got involved in a lot of [controversy]. I remember

one day, the mayor sent an delegation of twenty-seven mayors going on to see

the governor. This was the governor after Terry [Sanford], and he says, well,

gentlemen, it's a non-profit corporation; I can't do anything about it.

G: They were upset about the programs?

E: They were upset about. We initiated a program that suggested to Community

Action Programs that they monitor public services available in black areas.

G: I can see why they might not want too much light cast on it.

E: So, they were a little unhappy about that. There were disturbances, particularly in

eastern North Carolina. So, the governor's staff shared this with me and I said,

SRC 11 Esser, Page -13-

well, we'll invite them to come to a Fund board meeting. So, we invited them and

we held the meeting, a regular meeting, and not a mayor showed up. So, the

Community Action Programs were of course non-profit corporations and most of

them were established, they were getting support from the federal program. As

the federal program got watered down and watered down, most of them still exist

but most of them are service-deliverers now. There's not much experimentation,

there's not much, really, community organization. You don't find delegations

going to the city council, but we had a good bit of that.

G: So, did you just begin to have a sense that the spin-off organizations would have

greater success on their own, that the Fund would be gone?

E: Yes, it was a way of getting new leadership in, not only staff but board. We had

some excellent [members], some of them resisted local [pressure], but on the

other hand, I lost one board member to local pressure. He believed that

somebody started the rumor that a shopping center in Rocky Mountain was

going to be burned up by a particular group of your activists who were employed

by the Community Action Program there. Tom called me and said, George, I

can't help you on this. I said, well, you don't have to take an active role.

G: He was a board member?

E: He was a board member. So he resigned. Well, actually what we did was we

got the cooperation of the, I believe it was the Durham Police Department.

Anyhow, we called that particular group of young activists up to Durham and

placed them in a facility where the Durham police were watching them the whole

time. The next day, sure enough, there was a report that the Tarrytown Mall

SRC 11 Esser, Page -14-

had been set fire to by this group. I had a press-conference and said, it may

have been set by somebody, but it wasn't set by that group. I said, we've got the

facts. Well, that really upset everybody up there, because they realized then the

man who was actually responsible was actually the Project Director of the

Community Action Program.

G: What was he trying to accomplish?

E: He was from that area and he was trying to accomplish being accepted. He had

come back from being in the Navy. He had been a captain in the Navy. He

wanted to be successful in the community and he realized that he was in a job

where he couldn't do that successfully. When he realized that he had been

duped, he resigned. They ended up, their board, selecting the first black director

of the Community Action Program in the state.

G: After that incident?

E: But you always had something like that. For a long time, I knew every city

manager and almost every mayor in the state from my work in the Institute.

They would call me and say, George, we can't put up with this. I would talk to

them and calm them down and so forth, but that usually got my nickel.

G: I was going to say, after a while, it's got to be exhausting.

E: Yes, so I went with them. Ford said I could get an office in Chapel Hill, and I did.

I already knew, I had met the staff of SRC back in 1964 when Les [Dunbar]

was there and then I knew Paul Anthony.

[End of side A2]

G: You were talking about a retreat that SRC and the Fund staff had together, and

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that the Fund staff were more...

E: We went down and met together one weekend in 1967, I guess, in Jekyll Island

[Georgia]. We had problems on how they were dealing with programs in the

region, and we were dealing with programs in North Carolina. It became clear

that we were a more activist group then they were.

G: Could you talk about that? What were some of the differences?

E: One of the differences is that we had more black staff. The black staff were

more inclined to go in and sit down and talk with the black leadership and to give

the kind of advice, or action that was not as restrained. And we had more people

dealing in a smaller area. Their staff was dealing with the whole South. They

didn't mix together well.

G: Really? You must have had a sense that there were common goals; that was

why you had the retreat.

E: Oh, yes, they had the same sort of common goals, but there was more feeling

that. Well, the SRC felt that the Fund had more resources, and we did. We had

helped the agencies we were working with get more resources from OEO than

they did.

G: Why do you suppose there was a difference in the level of funding for the Fund

as opposed to the SRC at the time?

E: Well, I think it was because we had more direct contact with our projects and

more responsibility for our projects under the way we were organized. SRC was

providing consultive services, but they weren't providing a lot of money to local

projects, except for the Human Relations Councils. So that [the result was that]

SRC 11 Esser, Page -16-

their role was different when you actually got down to it.

G: Do you think that maybe the Ford Foundation was more comfortable with the

high level of state involvement with the Fund?

E: Oh, definitely, and some involvement of the state continued under Governor

[Dank] Moore and his staff. I mean Terry Sanford was chair and stayed as chair

of the Fund Board until 1967. It was understandable why the Fund had a

different type of personnel and a different view of its role, but I was just citing the

fact that we did attempt, the directors did attempt. John Wheeler, being a

prominent member of both organizations, pushed this too.

G: Some attempt at collaboration?

E: There was not as much shared experience. They did not find the Fund

experience as helpful as they might have wished, and we did not find the SRC

experience, at that time, [as helpful]. No, I wasn't trying to be critical of SRC.

G: I understand.

E: Simply, there was just a difference in their role...

G: ...in role and scope and...

E: ...and staff. You know, it made a lot of difference. They did not have a senior

staff member. Except for VEP [Voter Education Project], which had become

separate, they had not had senior staff who were black.

G: Right, I have heard that.

E: I made an effort to [change that], well, I had to. Ford Foundation would have

looked askance if I hadn't ,and we made a pledge to John Wheeler that there

would be. Actually, one time in the years 1965, 1966, 1967, [and] into 1968,

SRC 11 Esser, Page -17-

those projects were spun-off. We had more minority staff. We had black staff,

we had women staff, we had [American] Indian staff, and we had more minority

staff in positions of responsibility than any other organization of the state. It was

an anomaly in the region. By 1967, my deputy was a black, my controller was

black, the director of one major funded project was an [American] Indian [and]

the other was a black, [and in] the staff working with Community Action Projects,

there were about four blacks, but two of the senior ones were black. It made a


G: It seems reasonable or possible to me that the SRC would have come under fire.

I mean, by that time, there would have been a Black Power movement, there

would have been a growing women's movement, it's curious that...

E: We ran into that when I was at SRC. See, when I went to SRC, I decided that

we've got to [have more black leadership]. I had already stated publicly and

stated to the SRC Board that I felt they ought to pick up a black director. Well,

they couldn't find one that they [wanted]. So, I made an effort to get senior black

staff and I had substantive staff. It is unbelievable the tensions that that created.

G: Yes.

E: There were tensions. Some of the black staff would want to do things that the

white staff would not want to do. Nor were they, in general. They were not as

close. They did not go to meals together, and there was no social life together,

which I had thought was important.

G: I get a sense that that's maybe a change. It sounds like it might be a reflection

SRC 11 Esser, Page -18-

of the times, the social landscape, because some of the things that people, who

were associated with SRC in the early 1960s, say, some of the things that they

recall as the strengths of the organization was a level of social interaction, of

going out together and drinking together. Warren Pritchard talked about all the

parties, that that was a haven, that there was an annual gathering.

E: That was true of board members and it was true to some extent of staff, and I

may have made a mistake here, I think that some of the black staff I employed

expected more of SRC and of veteran staff. That's why they didn't get it.

G: Right. Well, it was a different time-period when you were there then. A lot of

things have changed.

E: You know, the 1970s were. Actually, you didn't find these tensions, you didn't

find activism much until 1965, 1966, [and] 1967; I mean, this is true in

Mississippi. Also, I remember there was also a tension between men and


G: Well, there was a growing women's movement too, at the time that you were


E: I remember one crisis I had. A rather famous black activist from Mississippi

came to a staff retreat we had. We were thinking of deploying, and somewhere

in the process of the late evening, he knocked on the door of a white staff

member who was married. He wanted to come in and be interviewed and, first

thing we knew, we had a rather explosive situation. You know, he was a good

man, but he misread that situation. In the North Carolina situation, I have

SRC 11 Esser, Page -19-

wondered, and I continue to have the respect of my staff. When we had a

reunion of Fund staff about five years ago, which was not organized by Fund

alumni, but by young people who felt it was an important background in the state,

the leading. Well, back in the 1960s, I had a staff member named Howard Ford

who scared the living daylights out of mayors and councilmen. Actually, he was

a great speaker, but he actually was a damn effective community organizer and

he could keep people from [violence]. You didn't find riots where Howard was

involved, even though he was blamed for them. He made three talks that four

days that we were having the reunion. He managed to get into every one of

them the fact that he did things that he knew upset the white community, but that

he never had any problem at the Fund level, because he always briefed me on

what he was going to do before he did it. He made the point that he felt that he

had been successful because he had support. I used a lot of nickels. [laughing.]

G: I bet. So, the Fund is closing down and you're dispersing the funds out to

different organizations and you are contacted by the Ford Foundation about

coming to work for them to work in the South, especially around...

E: It's an interesting thing. I was also a member of National Association of

Community Development Agency Services, I think that's what it was called. I

was vice-president that was due to be president. We had scheduled a meeting

in Atlanta for a day that turned out to be the day that Martin Luther King was

buried. So, we showed up and some of the people went to the funeral. I felt that

I was not going to make a special plea for a seat when it was obvious that the

SRC 11 Esser, Page -20-

church was overcrowded anyhow. I thought it was actually bad form for people

to politically feel they had to be there. But that night, I flew to New York,

because the next morning I had a long discussion with Mike Smirnoff about

what I would do. We finally agreed. I mean, for awhile, I was to move up there

and that didn't work out, and I was glad it didn't work out. We stayed in Chapel

Hill; I had offices there. At that time you could get a seven o'clock plane out of

Raleigh Durham [Airport] and hit LaGuardia about 8:20. I could be downtown

before some of my colleagues. I did have an interesting three years or so, but as

the program advisor, I had input, but I didn't have the responsibility of a program

officer for making initial decisions about whether a project would be sent forward

or not. I finally got frustrated. In the meantime, I was in and out of Atlanta a lot.

I knew that Paul Anthony was going to retire and I had said that it ought to be a

black director and I recommended one, but Vivian Henderson was President of

Clark College, chairman of SRC Executive Committee, and also a member of the

Ford {Foundation board]. I don't know whether it was his fault or whether Mike, I

think it was Vivian's, Vivian asked me to consider applying for the Council


G: Had you had any contact with SRC while you were working for Ford?

E: Oh, yes, they were a regular. They were grantees, so I had to make visits there


G: What was the kind of work they were doing, using board money at the time?

E: I didn't feel that they had a very good research program, particularly on things

SRC 11 Esser, Page -21-

like housing and then vocational education and welfare and things, substantive

service areas. They were stronger in human relations. Paul wasn't a very

aggressive type. The best SRC programs then were unquestionably the two

publications, South Today and [New South]. There again, you see, we had

senior white staff. They were good publications, but I just felt like there was

opportunity for more good technical assistance and good research.

G: Did you have any sense that, say, the roles of minorities were changing at SRC

as you saw them through Ford....

E: I noted that support staff tended to be black. When I took over at SRC, there

were only two black staff programs and they were both very junior. Leon Hall

and Art Kemp [directed them]. Art is one of my very good friends today. Leon is

dead, but they were both excellent people. I'm not criticizing the senior staff, I'm

simply saying that the senior staff was not as sensitive to the changes in the

black community as I had hoped they would be. Well anyhow, the fall of 1971,

Vivian and Mike encouraged me to consider SRC and I was invited down to

interview the board. I later found that they were considering a black director. I

can't remember his name right now, [but I know] he was from Little Rock. He

was a good man. So, I got an offer. I can't remember exactly when it was; I

think it was in January. I thought about it a long time. I'm strange that way.

Susan and I [talked, but] I didn't talk about it with a lot of people; I should have. I

might have changed my mind. Eventually, I took it. I didn't impose many

conditions. I could have, I guess, in retrospect, but I didn't.

SRC 11 Esser, Page -22-

G: What conditions would you have imposed?

E: Not necessarily conditions, but I think it would have helped if I had indicated that

I wanted annual evaluations. I think that if I had been more specific on fringe

benefits that it wouldn't have. One of the problems was that I could never get.

Well, one of the staff that should have been pushing it didn't push it enough and

it had long delays and an effective system was not [implemented]. I brought my

own system. I have TIAA[-CREF; retirement fund for academics]. I tried to get

TIAA for SRC, but they wouldn't. By that time, TIAA felt that they had

supported/included too many non-profit corporations in the Johnson years, so

they were not including it. I should have made a point of that and I should have

not accepted responsibility for that so much as gotten the board to accept

responsibility. Well anyhow, I accepted in, I believe it was March to be effective


G: ....of 1972.

E: I went down there two or three times. I went down for the press conference and

all, but I didn't move until June. We bought an old house in the Emory area, and

it took us about a year to [get into shape]. Mary served as the general contractor

and there were a couple handymen who did most of the work, but it turned out it

was a lovely area, nice people, and the house was about fifty years old but, you

know, once we had made some improvements, it was great. We had a fairly

good set-up. But, anyhow, I do feel that I did not talk to enough people about

that. I depended on my own knowledge of it. I did not talk to enough people

SRC 11 Esser, Page -23-

about the staff, the role, the whole business of it. I accept that responsibility.

G: So, what's the social landscape like in the South in the summer of 1972?

Vietnam is still going on, Nixon's in the...

E: Well, that was the summer of the Nixon-McGovern race and, my gosh, you could

hardly. My son, who was fifteen, I guess, at that time, worked for the McGovern

staff for the state and it was one lone, little storefront. Gosh, McGovern didn't

get anything in the South. It was pretty grim. The social landscape. I think that

there were expectations in the black community, that not enough had been done

and they wanted to see more progress. At the same time, I tell you, you know,

when you compare Nixon and Bush, well, Nixon did a lot. [laughing.] I was

optimistic that summer. I took the staff off on a retreat and had some outside

facilitators in. There were little traditions that had grown up in SRC that I

unintentionally terminated.

G: Like what?

E: A Black staff member usually served as purchasing agent I believe, but she had

authority to send flowers on a lot of occasions. I felt that that was [not good]. My

experience with the use of Foundation funds was, you didn't send flowers. That

created a lot of problems. Then, I brought [in] a lawyer deputy that was black. If

you know him, well, you know that I probably made a mistake there, Harry

Gould. Harry, I had been in a meeting with him at Penn Center and I was

impressed with him and he was smart. He is smart.

G: He is smart.

E: He wants things done the way he wants things done [laughing], and he doesn't

SRC 11 Esser, Page -24-

get along with a lot of people.

G: So, that caused a lot of tension.

E: That caused a lot of problems right from the beginning. Now that is one of the

sections that I may want to seal.

G: You got it.

E: It was difficult.

G: He was coming into a situation where the organization had not really promoted

African Americans to positions of authority.

E: That's right. See, all of that veteran white staff had never served under a black

staff. I think that he was aware of that too. You know, I didn't learn until later

that some of the problems that had been created. So, let's see. I got there in

June, we had this retreat in early September, and the Ford Foundation staff were

pushing me for change.

G: In what ways?

E: Well, they wanted to see more research. They wanted to see more ability to

advise communities on a wide range of education issues, housing issues,

vocational training, and I spent a lot of time in October putting together a

proposal that did spread a much wider net. I think that the veteran staff were

pleased to see that there would be more done in that way. We didn't get full

funding and I made the mistake. When I was at the Fund, first of all, we started

with a lot of money. The second thing was that I had superb financial officers. I

could depend on them; whenever there was a financial problem, they would raise

SRC 11 Esser, Page -25-

it and they would have a solution for it. I assumed that I was going to get the

same support at SRC, and I didn't. I don't think it was intentional on their part,

they simply didn't know how. I had grown accustomed to a style of operation

that didn't fit. We'll come into some of the other aspects of it a little later, but

from the beginning, I shifted from a program that evolved out of the dollars

available to a program that required x-dollars and Ford gave us y-dollars. I was

working hard to get the difference from other foundations. Well, sometimes I did

and sometimes I didn't, but I got new dollars. One of the best programs that I

introduced was the Southern Governmental Monitoring Project. You could say

that it was modeled on Ralph Nader. It was actually a staff member at Carnegie,

who was an old friend of mine. We worked it out together, and that's when we

brought Peter Pekers [in]. They built the staff and a program that affected every

state. It was just a good program, but it was administered separately. That was

one of the requirements the funding foundation imposed. [They said,] we don't

want the old staff to administer that. I was not, because I was not sure any of

the old staff would be attuned to that sort of reviewing how public money is

spent. We had a project on the Sunshine Laws, and in each state we had

a number of special projects. I'd have to look it up. I remember, I came up to

my old stamping grounds. We put an intern up in Raleigh one year. He worked

out some really excellent programs, and I came up here and we had a press

conference. Right at the moment, I forget what precisely [it was], but it was

related to research for minorities in the legislature. That was a big element. The

same Carnegie [guy] also showed an interest in an investigative reporter project

SRC 11 Esser, Page -26-

and we got that money. Then, while I was working for Ford, I had helped some

in getting the Southern Grove Policies Board established. When they came up

with the idea of a commission for the future of the South, the first one, the

director of the Southern Grove Policies Board came and asked for consulting

and help from the Council. Well, some of my staff didn't want to take that,

because they felt we would be polluted in some way, I guess. [laughing.] It

worked pretty well. That report was a lot different, because we were involved,

then it would have been. When the full commission met, there were some

people there [that] I wish hadn't been there. I mean, every state had two

representatives and there were some people who were pretty conservative, but

there were others who were pretty good. That's where I got to know Jimmy

Carter, because he was the chair. I got to have an honor and respect for his


[There are a few comments about the tape recorder.]

E: Well anyhow, I was trying to do too much. I can see [it,] in retrospect, I was

trying to do too much too quickly. We were involved in that Commission on the

Future of the South, we were involved in the Southern Governmental Monitoring

Project, we were...

[End of side A2]

G: We're talking about busing. I just want to clarify for the transcriber; we're talking

about busing.

E: I think this was in 1973, we got a call from the Chamber of Commerce in

Memphis. The head of it was from North Carolina, [a] good man. I didn't know

SRC 11 Esser, Page -27-

him, but a friend of mine knew him. He wanted help in helping Memphis

implement busing. So, we went up there and met with him, decided that we

could help. We assigned two staff members, this young black staff member that

I spoke to you about and a man that I had known in North Carolina who had

been in Atlanta at that time. He was more middle-aged, but he was a very good

man. They went up to Memphis and worked with the police department. It was

the education people and the integration of schools went smoothly. We didn't do

a lot of that direct kind of support, but we did a fair amount of consultation on it.

G: You worked for the Charlotte school system too, right?

E: Oh, we had worked with Charlotte. Actually, I worked with Charlotte when I was

working for Ford. I used a little bit of Fund money that was left over and had a

charette between the school board and representatives of some of the

neighborhoods. I took them up to a church conference center that I knew in

Western North Carolina and it worked out pretty well. It helped move things

along. We didn't have the staff to do a lot of [things], but, you see, we brought

that staff member on. We didn't get any money from Memphis, so those are the

sorts of things where your expenses went up and my staff didn't call to my

attention that the [expenses had changed]. 1973 was an exceedingly busy year,

and still I've managed. I remember Mary and I took a vacation. We hadn't

gotten a vacation the year before, so we took one. The board was very

supportive, they liked to see the new things coming in.

G: Who was the president of the board at the time?

E: Vivian Henderson was chair and Dr. Raymond Wheeler of Charlotte was chair of

SRC 11 Esser, Page -28-

the executive committee. I think that 1973 was a positive year, I mean, a lot of

things were happening. With more staff, why, we contracted for more space and

of course that ran our costs up too. We were getting a lot done, but in

retrospect, we weren't. We had gotten significant support from Carnegie, we

had some support and interest in giving more from Rockefeller, Rockefeller Fund

was a supporter, [and] we didn't get anything from Atlanta Foundations, which

disturbed me. We didn't have a good system for pricing things like when we

went to Memphis, which we should have had, in retrospect. We also developed

a program that I was very pleased with. We had about five interns: a couple

from Yale, one from Harvard, Southerners, [and] a couple from North Carolina. I

was very pleased with the quality of the young men and women who came in on

that program. That was in addition to the interns in the Southern Governmental

Monitoring Project. I keep up with some of those people today. So, 1973 was a

good year.

[There is a break in the interview.]

G: Okay, this is Susan Glisson with George Esser, it's August 8, [2002] and we are

back talking about the Southern Regional Council. I think we finished up

yesterday talking about 1973 and some of the programs that you did. We

mentioned yesterday some of the others that you thought were important to


E: Yes, I'm going to touch briefly on several programs that were important to me in

1974 and 1975, and then I'm going to go into more detail on the problems that

SRC 11 Esser, Page -29-
we encountered. I spoke yesterday about the Commission on the Future of the

South. We worked pretty hard on that in 1974, because the final report was

scheduled for that November. I don't recall, it seems to me that we didn't get

adequately compensated for everything we did, but we felt it was a good

opportunity, and it was. We were able to say some things there, with the

imprimatur of Governor Jimmy Carter and a lot of other people, that we couldn't

have gotten the coverage that we did with them. At the very end, putting the final

report together, we were right in there at the final stages. They weren't tinkering

with our contributions. We were in there at the final stages and I thought that it

went very well. They were interested in supporting a task force on southern-rural

economic development. We had in our membership one of the leading

economists on that subject, who later became Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall.

Vivian Henderson and I worked pretty hard on putting the Commission together.

We were successful in getting Ellie Curd to transfer [from] Vanderbilt and

Chairman of the Ford Foundation Gore to be the Chair. We had a distinguished

Commission, and Ray himself became the chief investigator with the help of

Lamon Godwin, a black economist that he had worked with before. That work

continued and the final report came out in the fall of 1976. Actually, it was after I

had left the Council, but they had asked me to come back to be involved in the

final presentation. They focused on health as the greatest opportunity for

economic development in many southern states, because of the fact that you did

not have a large turnover in population in many rural counties, but you had

continuing problems in public health. It was an interesting venture.

SRC 11 Esser, Page -30-
The Ford Foundation, for a number of years, had supported a leadership-

development program, which involved bringing or giving school principals and

other officials a year of independent study, but working closely together. They

finally decided that it would make sense if they brought the administration of that

program under the Council to simplify the logistical problems. The head of it,

Casey Chavis, was from North Carolina and was a good friend of mine, and I

was glad to have the fulcrum under the Council. It involved a lot of interesting


Then, we had the Black Women's Employment Program. It was going

when I came and it [was] completed in 1975, but it was an effort to secure

opportunities in professional positions for black women in the South. There was

a focus, obviously, in Atlanta. It was a very good program and Alexis Herman

was a very able director, as her subsequent career has demonstrated. When I

first went there, Matt Waters, who edited one of the publications [of the] Council,

had a reputation for having been influential in helping journalism cover the civil

rights problem, came to me and expressed his great interest in saying [that] the

Council move away from newsletter- and pamphlet-type of publications. [He

thought] a magazine would be more popular [and] in-style, and [it] would include

fiction as well as serious things. It would have some features [like] a New

Yorker-style magazine, and more [like] Atlantic; I mean that kind of [publication].

He knew the name of a consultant in Atlanta who specialized in new ventures in

magazines, and so he came in. We have a foundation we thought was

interesting. Well anyhow, we had a study made by this consultant and he came

SRC 11 Esser, Page -31-
up. I forget exactly what [he said]. I think he said, if we had a promotional

mailing and got either a 2 or 3 percent return, that would be sufficient. Well,

despite the fact that we didn't get the grant to cover that, we had moved along far

enough that I thought, well, we ought to try. So, we tried it. It costs us

something, we got good publicity on the promotion, we got barely enough to

justify trying, and so we, I guess it was in 1973 and 1974 that we published

Southern Voices. I think it was a pretty good magazine. Did you ever see it?

G: I haven't seen it.

E: The response was not sufficient to justify it on an extended basis, so we brought

the consultant back in the fall of 1974. We decided we would have to terminate

it, so we wrote everybody and we refunded the unexpired [subscriptions], which

was not easy to do.

G: Who had funded that?

E: We refunded...

G: Oh, you refunded the subscription.

E: ...subscription prices.

G: I see.

E: I think that, during this year, because we were involved with the Commission on

the Future of the South, the Task Force on Southern Rural Development, and we

[had] the magazine, there was a lot of question about whether we were focusing

too narrowly on civil rights. I pushed, not hard, but I pushed for recognition for

poverty and civil rights as a focus.

G: Where these internal concerns or were these external concerns that you were

SRC 11 Esser, Page -32-
focusing too much on civil rights?

E: In terms of saying what the Council stood for and getting grants and so forth, it

was somewhat easier to have an expanded purpose than a narrower purpose...

G: In terms of getting funding?

E: ...in terms of getting funding.

G: Okay.

E: Questions were raised by board members and people like Julius Chambers, but

we were on a somewhat expanded definition of mission [in] 1974, 1975, 1976. It

seemed to me from what I read, the program under Steve went back to civil

rights primarily.

G: Also, it became much smaller. He got rid of a lot of staff.

E: I'm not criticizing that, I'm just...

G: Right, you're just saying...

E: ...simply stating.

G: ...the fact.

E: So, as we ended 1974, we had the disappointment of the magazine, but our

research was beginning to produce. The Commission on the Future of the South

was finished, but our research on education had been useful there. The Task

Force on Southern Rural Economic Development was moving along. I was

conscious of the need to raise more money. I knew that we weren't breaking

even in grants that year. The reports I was getting from the financial officer

showed that we weren't too far behind. I'm not a particularly good finance-man

myself and I'm sure I didn't read books carefully enough. The financial officer

SRC 11 Esser, Page -33-
made a major mistake. She showed two major accounts with, I forget the

details, but there were revenue-sources [shown twice]. In effect, she counted

the revenue twice. I looked at the reports and it showed those two large

accounts pretty well breaking even when, as a matter of fact...

G: They weren't.

E: ...they weren't. So, the auditor came in February, or had been in. He was

finishing his job in February. The auditing firm was a black firm from up here that

were good friends of mine. I had thought that it was appropriate for a black firm

to do that job. Until then there had been the standard [white] firm. So Deut

Sullivan called me, and we're near the end, and he says, George, you obviously

don't realize it, but we're going to show you in debt by $429,000. Well, I gawked.

We looked at all of the possibilities and there was no question that we were in

debt that much, so we had to find a solution. The solution actually was working

out, you'll see later. First, I went to the Ford Foundation and I got assurance that

a somewhat limited staff would be funded through to eighteen months, to the fall

of 1976. The Southern Governmental Monitoring Project was separately funded

and had a separate bank account, as did the Task Force on Southern Rural

Economic Development. What was causing the problem, primarily, was the

research and consulting staff and overhead. I went to New York and sat down

with Mike Smirnoff and we came to an agreement that he would [help]. This

was nothing new to him. I mean, he had experienced it in a number of projects,

not as badly, as a matter of fact, though. I mean, he had had worse, but it

involved cutting back pretty severely on some staff, not all. It involved correcting

SRC 11 Esser, Page -34-
the accounting. It involved just general tightening on all sorts of things. People

had been accustomed to having a credit card since long before I came. There

was a feeling that we could save a little here, a little there, a little there, and it

would add up.

G: Was there any, I don't mean to be indelicate, but in terms of the financial officer

who hadn't reported things accurately, was there an accountability for that

person? Was that person let go?

E: Well, she stayed on until we got replaced, but [she] was transferred. She had

gotten her start at the North Carolina Fund, but it turned out that she wasn't all

that she appeared to be. She had used some rough tactics with some of her

[methods], she realized it, but she had never informed me of the problem.

Obviously, since she made the mistakes on that, she didn't realize the mistakes.

So, I think she terminated in about six months, but, from the beginning, we had

a search for a replacement and eventually came up with a man who had moved

to Atlanta from the middle West. I think he was technically very good, [but] he

was somewhat naive. After I left, he stayed for several months, but I think he left

in 1977 sometime. He got a better job, I guess. Technically he did a very good

job. My problem with Russell was, he didn't understand the politics of it. He was

white and didn't understand the politics. He didn't understand some of the things

that I had done. [My actions were] perfectly legal, but questions [arose], again, of

making sure that races and genders were treated equally. He saw opportunities

for savings in some places that I thought would be ill-advised, because it

basically would have hit blacks and women first.

SRC 11 Esser, Page -35-
Well, anyhow, I got an agreement from the Ford Foundation. Then, I

came back and I consulted with the staff, and then I called a special board

meeting. I tried to be as frank and detailed as I possibly could. They voted to

support me and I had no problem with the board. They asked me what staff I

was going to terminate, and they said, you have either got to leave or Harry has

got to leave. We can't have two people at the top. At that time, I was having a

lot of problems with the staff because of Harry.

G: You'd really had problems with the staff and Harry almost from the beginning.

E: Yes, and I said, you know, it's your choice, but I said, I want to warn you that

there are problems there. They said, well, we prefer that you stay. So, I stayed,

even though I knew it was going to be hell.

G: And you let Harry go?

E: Yes, but I left some senior white staff go, too. I determined [that] I had gotten into

this, so I'll do it myself. So, I called everybody in and the ones that I terminated I

informed directly. Now, one of the problems was that we still hadn't solved that

damn pension problem. They had a pension plan that had been in effect for a

good, long time, but it was a lousy plan. All of a sudden, we didn't have any

money to provide any real severance-protection. That may have been at the

heart of some of the problems we encountered later. I just didn't have the

money. I informed the board. I had to remind the board later that I had informed

them. I think that was probably the worst thing. It was probably good for the

organization to down-size, but it was not good for the individuals or the

organization to not have resources for a better service arrangement. I knew that,

SRC 11 Esser, Page -36-
but I had no choice really. I had to move ahead. So, we cut several positions,

including two of the real veterans from the previous staff, Pat Watters and Jim

Wood. Jim was an administrative jack-of-all-trades. He didn't really have any

substantive contribution to work and he had always sort of run the office, and

that sort of thing. He came as a shock to him to be terminated. He came as a

shock to Pat. Pat later wrote a book about it. When I was in Washington,

Harold Fleming, Harold was Head of the Potomac Institute, just had an office up

to the street from me, and we had seen each other, and we were good friends.

Harold called me one day and he said, George, I want you to stop by, can you

stop by this afternoon? I said, sure. He said, I just wanted you to know that Pat

Watters has written a book about mid-career crisis. He said, he refers to the

situation at the Council in terms that you wouldn't like, and he said, I would

advise you not to read the book. And I never have.

G: Really?

E: The Ford Foundation sent down a retired auditor to check our books, and he

found that the accounting, with the exception of that balancing, had been

appropriate. The problem was that the communication to me and

communication to the board was lousy. So, that was another thing that had to

be changed and dealt with. One of the things that I learned, however, [was] I

learned that I had been very fortunate, I had really been spoiled. The finance

people I had at the Fund, they kept me very closely informed. I knew what I

could do and what I couldn't do, and the people I had in the Council [weren't as

good]. The person I inherited, who resigned, and I can see now why she

SRC 11 Esser, Page -37-
resigned, she knew we were going to run into problems, but she couldn't bring

herself to tell me. As you well know, Susan, when you get into a small

organization and the executive director is trying to do too much, it's easy for

something to give.

G: Yes.

E: I've observed it closely, not only in organizations that I've been in, but in a lot of

other organizations. One man can't do everything, and one woman can't do

everything. I had trouble again at the National Academy with the accountant.

He had a lot of good experience, but, boy, he was a wild one. It wasn't so much

a question there of a sudden discovery, but he would come in and tell me all is

very good, but I would realize that we weren't. I had my finger on it closely. In

the last twenty-five years, [there has been] this revolution on fund-raising. This is

at a time when I brought two people with development experience on the staff of

the Southern Regional Council, but their experience has been in either in

colleges or large organizations; they didn't know how to be here.

G: I'm curious too, do you have a sense that foundations just weren't interested in

funding organizations that were doing the kind of work that SRC was doing? I

mean, is it the post-civil rights period?

E: I was trying to expand our funding base. For example, later, at the time that I left

the Council, I had pending visits scheduled from Rockefeller, Kellogg,

Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which we were always getting support from, and an

auditor of some foundation who was funding the Task Force on Southern Rural

Development, [but who] would not give us a dollar for general support, but for the

SRC 11 Esser, Page -38-
overhead. You know, foundations don't like to give money for overhead. Well,

overhead is essential for to an organization. I was negotiating with Lily

[Foundation and] I was negotiating with Donner [Foundation]. We were

involved in seeking funds from a whole variety of foundations, including many

who knew they should support something like the Council and hadn't. [However,]

when I left, all of them closed off negotiations. In other words, the negotiations

had been with me. Steve later came in and said, what about this foundation, this

foundation, this foundation? I said, you have got to establish a [relationship].

They felt they knew me and they wanted to deal with the top-man. I said, you'll

have some luck when you go back, but the 1970s were a tough period for non-

profits. Not that it isn't considered a tough period now, too. It was a tough

period and a lot of non-profits, not the council but a lot of non-profits, had

support from federal sources: OEO, HUD, [and] Labor. [They had this support]

during the 1960s and early 1970s, and that being cut off, they were going to see

foundations. So, I was aware that we needed to have them. The reason I

experimented with these development people was, I had talked to a fund-raiser

for Ralph Nader. I had a long talk with him. He had recommended, if you can

get small gifts, they will add up.

[End of side B3]

E: We did not develop that alternate source of revenue that we very much needed

to, because, you know, foundations [and their money] don't continue and we

needed a steady source of income that was not related to foundations. I was on

SRC 11 Esser, Page -39-
the board of the National Sharecroppers Fund. Well, the National

Sharecroppers Fund had gotten a giver's base, back in the 1950s. They were

still, even though the situation had changed and I didn't think that their program

was nearly as effective as it might have been, but they were getting this

$150,000 [or] $200,000 every year without too much trouble. It was a base that

had been established, actually, back in the 1940s. I think The Southern Regional

Council, I don't know exactly whether they established that kind of work. I know

that Wendy is working on it, and I have contributed to it. As of 1975, I was just

trying to develop it, but you need money to see money, and I was doing it on a

shoestring. I was working on it, but it was not producing. I was working on a lot

more foundations. I was really trying to do too much. I felt that it was essentially

important. In 1975, we down-sized. We adopted economies. We reduced

investment in some types of research. We ceased dramatically, but we kept the

Southern Governmental Monitor Project going full- blast, [The] Investigative

Reporting Project was going, the Task Force of Southern Rural Economic

Development was going, and some of the research we were doing [was] having

some good results and some of the things in education [were having good

results]. I remember when the executive committee met in January of 1976,

things were pretty good. I remember the attitude was good. Everything looked

like it was working pretty well. They closed this special motion, thanking me for

good performance. Well, I left that meeting and Mary and I drove to Florida,

where I had appointments with several foundations. I was in the office of one of

them. I can't remember which one it was. I remember it was on Orlando. I was

SRC 11 Esser, Page -40-
on the way home [and] I got a phone-call from my secretary that Vivian

Henderson had died. So, I got in the car and drove straight through to Atlanta,

Mary and I did. It wasn't big like Martin Luther King's funeral, but it was a big

funeral, because he was well-known and had a fine reputation. So, soon after

that, there was a meeting of the executive committee to choose the successor to

Vivian. The vice chairman, I forget the title, was Pat Darian. I sat in on the

election, which I later realized I shouldn't have done. I felt it necessary to call the

attention of Ray Wheeler to the fact that there had been a tradition in the Council

that the vice chairman moved up [to the presidency]. There was some effort to

consider somebody else. So, Pat was finally elected. She and I had a couple

meetings that I thought were very good meetings and then she came down to

Atlanta just about two to three weeks before the meeting and she told me that

she was checking some things and that she wanted to talk to some staff

individuals. I felt that I couldn't stand in her way. I realized that she was doing a

lot of research on the finances because Russell Haney was going in there and

she didn't say very much to me.

To make a long story short, I knew that she was doing some research on

the operations of the Council. She did not tell me what they were. I did not

pressure on what it was. We came to the meeting and there had been some

conversation among some of the board members about the specific role and

purpose of the Council. The poverty and civil rights issue came in. There were

legitimate questions and I had put some material in their hands, background

material on this. We had the discussion that afternoon. It was a good

SRC 11 Esser, Page -41-
discussion, [but] there was no consensus. Then, we had supper. After supper,

Pat said, George, would you let us meet tonight without staff, an executive

session. So I said, sure. I called Mary and we went to a movie and my practice

had been, when the executive committee met, I usually stayed at the hotel. So, I

got back to the hotel and I had a message that, however late it was, to please

call Mrs. Darian. So I called her and she said, could you come up. She said,

we had a long discussion and by a one-vote margin, only half the committee was

there, we would like to suggest to you that you resign. She didn't give any


When I look back on it now, I realize I should have pressed for the

reasons, but this was over a year after. She said, my impression is that you

have burned out. That was a difficult thing to discuss at one o'clock in the

morning. I said, all right, I'll think about it and have some reply. She was very

warm and solicitous. So, I went back and I went home and talked to Mary. I

came back in the morning. My feeling throughout my career has been, if you're

working with a board and they don't have confidence in you, then you don't get

very far. On the other hand, in thinking about it, I made a mistake in not pushing

for why they asked for it, other than the general problem that there had been

such a change in attitude from one meeting to the other, that I knew there were

underlying reasons, but I didn't push them and I should have. So, I said that I

would resign effective September 30. I would make it appear voluntary and

there were some other things. I said, you realize that the negotiations I have

underway will probably all fail, but Pat didn't realize that until later. Everyone that

SRC 11 Esser, Page -42-
she tried to call or talk to didn't [talk to her], that was a shock to them, except for

the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation had made commitments, but their

commitment had to be renewed that fall. So, I went home, took the afternoon

off, the next day I came in and wrote out a press release and released it. I said

that I had spent too long trying to establish a financial base for the Council and

that somebody ought to try it. Then, I called the staff together and told them.

They were shocked, I think. Some of them raised the question right away, you

should fight it, but I just hadn't had my strength, so I said, I don't think so. Then,

I called other members of the executive committee and I realized that they

probably wouldn't have gotten the majority from those ones, if the whole

committee had been there. Julius wasn't there, John Wheeler wasn't there, but

I had already acted.

G: They had a quorum?

E: They had a quorum, yes, but it was a five-to-four vote. In many ways I was

relieved, because I had been carrying a lot of pressure. After I satisfied all of the

notifications of people, I took a two-week vacation. Mary and I drove up to North

Carolina, Virginia, and Washington. I went to see Harold Fleming and I went to

see Les Dunbar. I told them both what had happened. I didn't ask them to be

committal, I just told them. When I got back, I don't recall all of this, but I realized

that [my] resignation [being] effective September 30 was all right for the public to

have but, actually, there wasn't much I could do. Pat came back to town and

SRC 11 Esser, Page -43-
she took over the office. I went into the conference room and I tried to bring her

up-to-date with the things that I had going. It took her a while to realize that she

would have to start over with the funding. They had a special meeting of the

executive committee a month after I got back. They first sent an emissary to me

to see if I would agree to termination as of June 30. I said I would not, because I

had announced publically what the conditions were and that it would be

embarrassing to me and to the Council. I realized that the members of the board

had a lot of anger, for reasons I didn't understand. I think I would say today that it

must have been something about the whole pension situation. The next thing

was that they had this meeting and it was clear that I was not to be a part of it,

but I asked for opportunity to appear before them. I spoke almost entirely of

program things that I hoped that they would continue, particularly reaching out to

young people. I pointed out the intern programs, pointed out the monitored

programs that were being successful, but there wasn't much said, so I left.

About two weeks later, I had a call from the general counsel. He said that, as a

part of that meeting, they had further terminated more of the veteran staff, so

there wasn't anyone left of the veteran staff, including all of the people during the

Dunbar-Anthony period. They owed me, it was on the same basis as the others,

something like $19,000 on retirement. He said, because you couldn't solve that

problem, we want to cut that to $9,000. That irritated me, because it wasn't my

fault so much, it was the consultant's fault for being slow. The consultant, his

contacts were with some of the older members. So I said, no. Over a period of

time, I looked back and found that I had informed them of the things they said

SRC 11 Esser, Page -44-
they didn't know, and that they had taken action approving it. I said, I see no

action for it. Well, I understood from Peter Petgus later that the general counsel

shut up and then they just said that they would split the difference. I left that

request on my desk for several weeks before Peter called, and he said, please

sign it. He said, you're just not going to get any more, we're just being held up.

So, we agreed on almost $15,000. The thing that I objected to was that they

never said what their problems were. I never knew what I was accused of. It

interested me as to why they were interested in talking to me about it, whatever it

was. I'm sure, as I said, on the pension thing, they had overlooked several

things. It hurt me that people who had been my friends had not had the courtesy

to talk to me about it; Paul Gaston [and] Ray Wheeler had been close friends.

There was no problem with Julius or John Wheeler, but John Wheeler was

sick. John would have been very forceful about it, but I have a feeling that Pat

did an analysis of the finances and she drew conclusions from some of the

things that were different from what they appeared to be. I was very

disappointed that I could not get into dialogue with people. I asked two or three

members of the board what they would do, and they said, I think we need some

time before you do it. Well, that's been twenty-five years ago and I have tried

not to let it affect my regard for the Council and what it achieved in the tough

years, which is why I pushed for this money. I don't think that I was

unreasonable on wanting to know what the problems were, accepting the fact

that I admit there were problems. I'm not trying to avoid accountability, I just

would like to have it on a straightforward basis. I haven't been back. It's an

SRC 11 Esser, Page -45-
interesting thing, I have had warm relationships with some friends from the

Council days. John Griffin has continued to be a very close friend. John never

mentioned [the situation]. Bob Anderson, a staff member, was loyal to me, but he

never mentioned what happened. He had a tough time, [but] it worked out all

right for him. The only staff member that I really had a problem about was, I

really regretted, that Embry Via was upset and I never really established the

relationship with him. I see Lucy Watkins all the time. She came with me from

the Fund. She's been very loyal. I have not talked with her at length about this,

but she's been very supportive of me and I've been supportive of her when she's

had her problems. As I say, Peter came to Washington; I would see Peter

occasionally in Washington. Occasionally, Steve came to see me a couple

times, but we never were very close. On the other hand, there was not any [hard

feelings]. By the time he took over, he simply had a rebuilding situation, and I

think he rebuilt it very well. The programs with respect to the legislature and the

election laws have been very good, I think, I support them.

G: I know that this was a difficult thing to talk about and I appreciate your openness

and your willingness to do that.

E: It seems to me that if Brian [Ward] is going to write a book, he ought to know that

it was tough. I would really counsel Brian that I think that there's a lot of reason

for completing a book with 1970 or 1971. The organization had some false

starts and maybe it isn't as broad in purpose as I had ventured, but I think it's a

very legitimate role.

G: Could you talk about how you see SRC's role in the African American freedom

SRC 11 Esser, Page -46-
struggle in the post-war South. How do you think historians ought to assess the


E: I think that it had a very significant role in the 1950s. At the time, there was

becoming a greater sense of purpose among the black population that there was

a place that they could refer to for good advice; support, and George Mitchell

and Les Dunbar and Harold Fleming, we were mighty fortunate to have people of

that quality concerned with those problems. Now, by the time we reached the

mid-1960s, there were so many other organizations, including all of the

organizations that came out of King's leadership and the black leadership itself,

the SRC's primary contribution at that time was VEP. Even when I was there,

you had to be sensitive to what the organizations were thinking about and what

they were doing. When you look at what the program of Mrs. [Coretta Scott]

King today, in the early 1970s, the Southern Regional Council provided the help

to her that she needed to write proposals and that sort of thing. That wouldn't be

true now, because the [King] family feels independent, but they felt they needed

help then. When I was there, when you had John Wheeler, Julius Chambers,

and Vivian Henderson on the same board, they were strong on the board. The

board, through them, made an impact, and Hodding [Carter?]. But a lot of the

members of the board did not have an impact. I tried, I don't think I was very

successful, but I tried to have the black staff have as much significance as the

black board members. We got them in numbers, but I'm not sure that we got

them in quality. I feel very strongly that, and my sense is, I did not build that staff

nearly as successfully as I had built the Fund's staff. I learned a lot that way.

SRC 11 Esser, Page -47-
G: Why do you suppose that the SRC has remained relatively unacknowledged by

historians, or maybe even misconstrued?

E: There were historians in the 1960s who knew about the SRC, but as more and

more leadership organizations developed in the South or in the nation, there was

less and less [attention given to the SRC]. It's interesting to me that there were

historians here who were very sensitive to SRC, but I don't think SRC reached

out to the George Tindall .[professor of Southern history at University of North

Carolina] George is out here now. Paul Gaston was on the board, and still is, of

course. [He's] another person that I regarded as a close friend who never, I think,

played straight with me. There were a number of young historians and young

political scientists who wrote about the South and they did not know or seek out

the council. I think it's a two-way street. After Les, the years of Paul Anthony,

and up until I took over, there was not any outreach from the Council to the

academic community. I believe that was because you didn't have academics on

the [board]. Now to some extent there was Dan Carter [professor of Southern

history at University of South Carolina] and Numan Bartley [professor of

Southern history at University of Georgia], I believe. They date to the earlier

years. We did succeed in some ways to involve the academic community, and

[with] the Task Force Southern Rural Development, we did. We used an

economist who was with Emory [University], Eva Golumboast, we used her. It's

interesting, you know to your question, why wasn't a history written, and I don't

know. I just don't know.

G: When historians talk about it, often the charge that's labeled or the descriptor

SRC 11 Esser, Page -48-
that's used is that [the SRC] was too gradualist, that early in its life, it could have

come out more forcefully against segregation, that it was reactive to the black

freedom struggle instead of initiating things. What do you think?

E: I don't criticize them for being gradualistic because, after all, they were created in

the crucible of the 1930s and 1940s. As we talked yesterday, my staff didn't

warm to their staff, because they felt that.... When I went, I gave more

authority to Leon Hall, I brought in Happy Lee, and we did do some activist

things. I think it is true that the older staff were less activist. There's another

reason I think would be better to close [a history of the SRC] at 1970, because

Steve didn't really get his program pushing until the mid-1980s, as I recall, to

really beginning to be effective. As I said yesterday, one of the mistakes that I

made initially was not talking to more people about the Council before I accepted

the job. I found that it was hard to mix points of view.

G: Is there anything that I should have asked you that I didn't, or that you expected

me to ask?

E: I don't think so. I've tried to be as forthcoming as I could. Now, when I get the

transcript, I may seal the whole thing.

G: That's absolutely your choice.

E: You can tell Brian that I'm willing to discuss [some things]. When he gets to the

writing, and if he decides to include our period, I'm willing to discuss it, but I'm

probably going to seal it. A lot of those people are still alive and one of the

things I have learned is, it's twenty-five years since that happened, it's thirty-five

years since the Fund was active, most people have forgotten about it. I have

SRC 11 Esser, Page -49-
rakes with people in this state, reminding them of the way that they reacted to

Howard Fuller in the 1960s, and now he is a legitimate figure that even supports

school vouchers. This was an issue in the Episcopal church in which I'm a

member, it's not an issue anymore, they just don't remember. We have black


G: So sometimes there's a value in forgetting. Do you think?

E: Oh yes. We not only have a black bishop, he was elected on the strength of his

support from the lay delegates. Thirty years ago, the lay delegates were the

ones that reacted violently to....

[End of side B4; end of interview]

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