As national executive secretary of the National Urban League from 1941 to 1961, Lester Granger was a champion of integration and equal treatment for African Americans. Granger and Martin Luther King became acquainted in 1957, and the following year they and other civil rights leaders met with President Dwight Eisenhower to push for civil rights reform. King praised Granger’s “dedicated and magnificent leadership” of the Urban League and appreciated his friendship (King, 28 September 1960).
Granger was born in Newport News, Virginia, on 16 September 1896. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1918, and served in the military during World War I. After the war, Granger became an industrial relations officer for the Newark, New Jersey, chapter of the Urban League. He continued work for the organization while teaching high school and college in North Carolina and as a social worker in New Jersey. In 1934, he became the business manager of the League’s magazine, Opportunity. In 1940, he became the organization’s assistant executive secretary and was appointed national executive secretary the following year. During World War II, he pushed for integration in the military and was awarded the Navy Medal for Distinguished Civilian Service and the President’s Medal for Merit in recognition of his efforts.
Shortly after the Southern Negro Leaders Conference (a precursor to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC) was held in Atlanta in January 1957, Granger sent a telegram to King commending the “conference for the forthright steps you are taking to find practical solutions for the critical problems that Negro citizens are facing today” (Granger, 16 January 1957). Although Granger declined King’s later invitation to serve on the advisory board of SCLC’s “Crusade for Citizenship,” citing a lack of time, he made it clear he admired the campaign as “a significant step toward full citizenship rights” (Granger, 27 December 1957).
In 1958, when planning a meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, King suggested that Granger and Roy Wilkins, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, be included despite the White House’s preference that the meeting only involve King and A. Philip Randolph. The four leaders met with Eisenhower on 23 June 1958, and discussed voting rights, Department of Justice protections against racial violence, and the pace of school integration after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
In 1960, King gave an address at the National Urban League’s golden anniversary celebration. “For fifty long years,” King told the gathering, “you have worked assiduously to improve the social and economic conditions of Negro citizens through interracial teamwork. Under the dedicated leadership of Lester B. Granger, your purposes have always been noble and your work has always been creatively meaningful” (Papers 5:499). King suggested that the Urban League and “more militant civil rights organizations” like SCLC had different, although equally important, roles in the “struggle to free the Negro” (Papers 5:506–507). Granger retired from the Urban League in 1961 and moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he taught at Dillard University. He died on 9 January 1976.
Granger to King, 16 January 1957, MLKP-MBU.
Granger to King, 27 December 1957, MLKP-MBU.
Introduction, in Papers 4:27–28.
King, ‘‘The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness,’’ Address at the Golden Anniversary Conference of the National Urban League, 6 September 1960, in Papers 5:499–508.
King to Granger, 28 September 1960, NULR-DLC.