Tracing the roots of his commitment to racial justice
Finlator began his education in racial justice from his father, he recalls. He built on this foundation by reading progressive journalism and learning from the example of Frank Porter Graham. Finlator speaks with great admiration for Graham and great passion for the example he set.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
So that is largely my ministerial career, always in
the Southern Baptist Convention. With this addition: Pullen Memorial
joined (while I was pastor) the American Baptist Convention, which is a
rare thing for a Southern Baptist Convention church to do. We were
dually aligned, and the reason the church did that was symbolic as much
as anything else. The Mason-Dixon line divided the Baptist Church prior
to the Civil War. And once there was one major Baptist Convention and
slavery was a division. And so we said we need to transcend that
Mason-Dixon line and so we joined both Baptist Conventions, which was an
exciting thing to do.
Incidentally, it's quite fascinating to return to your home,
where you were brought up, where you went to public school, became
pastor, and see all your old colleagues around there and grow old with
- JAY JENKINS:
You, of course, have been active in civil rights activities for nearly 40
years. Did any individuals have any particular influence on you in this
- WILLIAM W. FINLATOR:
Yes, very definately. I mentioned my father a while ago. He was a rare
character. He had a very deep sense of justice and fairness; we learned
this as children. And nothing is learned so quickly by a child as
inequity or unfairness. He taught us the value of
every person. He never let us say a slurring word about a black person.
He had a tender feeling for poor people—people we call today
"marginal" and "disenfranchised."
There were words we did not use in those days, but we learned this from
my father. And later on I learned from him the value and meaning of a
labor union, because he was a member of a labor union with the railroad
called the Order of Railroad Conductors. So that all through my life my
father—more than I was aware at the time—was a
role model for the sense of fair play and justice and tenderness for the
rights of people.
But when I came to Raleigh, Jay, I had gone only to Baptist schools and I
had a traditional upbringing in my home: it was a Southern, puritanical
background. My church was Southern Baptist, Wake Forest is a Baptist
institution, the Louisville Seminary another Baptist institution, so my
education in some ways was restricted. Though neither of these schools I
went to put a bar on my curiosity and my inquisitiveness. When I came to
Raleigh there was a man here in the United Church, named Carl Voss. He
was fresh out of Union Seminary. You remember Union Seminary in the days
of Harry Ward, Reinhold Niebuhr and Henry Sloan Coffin, the great
intellectual and rebellious Christian leaders. And my association with
him was a fascinating thing. He opened up to me worlds of reality that I
had just not known about, what with my conventional
education. And he told me the things I was supposed to read. He told me
I should read The Progressive Magazine, and
The Nation, and The New Republic, The
Christian Century, and later on I discovered
Christianity and Crisis. And these magazines coming to me in
the late 1930s and early 40s had a transforming influence on my life.
They opened up to me vast worlds of injustice and economic repression,
of unfairness, and I began to deal with these issues and relate them to
the Bible. And I went through a great revolutionary experience; it was
exciting. It was exhilarating. And thereafter I could never be the same.
And so this man, Carl Voss, his friendship, his courage, his
intellectual integrity, his dashing verve, was a thrill—all
that was a thrill to me.
But then after my father, and after Voss and after the writers I became
acquainted with in The Nation and The New
Republic and so on, "way leads on to way," as
Robert Frost would say. These things that made for other things. But at
that time, the great Dr. Frank Porter Graham was at his height of
influence and leadership in North Carolina. The man I mentioned in
Pittsboro, Dr. W.R. Thompson, superintendent of schools, was a personal
friend of Dr. Graham and he and I used to talk about Dr. Graham. You can
imagine me: I was 23, 24 and 25, unmarried, first church and living
in company with a man who was introducing me,
personally, to Dr. Frank Porter Graham.
And I saw what Dr. Graham was doing then and many years afterwards. I saw
that, first of all, he was a loyal alumnus to the great University of
North Carolina. I saw that he loved the South—the southern
traditions. I saw that he was deeply devoted to his Presbyterian church.
I saw that he loved all kinds of people: people who were in the
establishment, people who were rejecting him, criticizing him,
excoriating him. I saw that he loved people who were black, people who
worked in textile mills, people who were on the farm sharecropping,
people who were migrants, welfare people and that he identified with all
these people and tried to bring them into the mainstream of American
opportunity. And I saw that he was a man of sensitivity, of inflexible
courage. I saw the way he stood behind his pastor in the Presbyterian
Church, Reverend Charles Jones, in the days when the Presbyterians were
in the process of removing him from his church, largely because of some
of the social stands this young minister was taking. I learned that
every time somebody left his church Frank Graham would find out how much
contribution he offered to the church and try to make it up himself
personally, if he couldn't persuade other people to do it.
I saw how he dealt with organizations that were supposed to have been
charged with being communist infiltrated. I remember one time there were
8 people on a committee and 2 were declared to be communists. And
therefore everyone said, "You must get off of that
committee." He said, "Well, if 6 good, American
capitalist people couldn't handle 2 communists, we ought to
be ashamed of ourselves. These communists were Americans, and
we're going to work with them and we'll not let
both of them take charge."
And I saw the way he loved Thomas Jefferson. He had a great sense of
American history and he was devoted to the Constitution. He had almost a
sense of veneration for the Bill of Rights. And all of these things
together—culture, religion, tradition, background, love of
people, intellectual acumen, identification with the disadvantaged
people—all these things swam into my ken, and I said,
"That's my man. That's my hero.
That's my Frank Graham."