Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

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 them.
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 respect?
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."