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

Accelerating civil rights activism over a ministerial career

When Finlator arrived at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1956, he had already gained the ire of some of his fellow ministers with his activity on behalf of progressive causes. He increased his civil rights activism in the years that followed, demonstrating with civil rights marchers in Raleigh.

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

When you came to Pullen in 1956, were you already active in civil rights matters, at that time?
Well, not as pronounced Jay, as I was at Pullen. But I had run afoul some of the members of our churches in former years because of my concerns about poor people, about the migrants over in the eastern part of the state, about black people in general. And I had run into some difficulty with identifying with the laboring people in Elizabeth City during a strike. And incidentally the man who was the manager of the industry—where some of the people were striking and trying to form a union—was a member of the church. And that was a very delicate situation. But all of this was inchoate, it was in the making even in the very first church, but it was accelerated a great deal after coming to Pullen Memorial where the pulpit was traditionally a free pulpit—something I did not make but that I inherited.
In the 1950s we had desegregation in North Carolina, special legislative session and so forth and so on. What are your recollections of your activities roughly in that era?
Well, along about that time I was a member, of the North Carolina Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. And we were forced to take action and we regarded that as our proper concern. And so through that committee (of which I later became chairman), I became active. There were times when we supported the protests, the vigils. And incidentally I was pleased with the marches down Fayetteville Street, for example, here in Raleigh, in which we were trying to get the old S&W Cafeteria—which was down on one end of Fayetteville Street, very close to Shaw University—to open up to blacks, particularly Shaw students. And then we were trying to get one of the major theatres downtown to integrate, and two or three stores. And I actually was not a loner. A number of people at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, such as Dr. H. M. Freeman, and others, Larry Highfill, etc. were down there walking and demonstrating. So I actually joined members of my congregation, which was to me a thrilling thing: to be led by your own people. There were organizational meetings held at Shaw University. And by that time the blacks of North Carolina had accepted me into their fellowship. From the very beginning of my ministry I made friends with black ministers, and black superintendents of schools. They would have me in their churches and their schools. Embarrassing, because in those days, your own church would not allow them to come and preach but that did not deter them from their kindness. I began to know black dentists and black physicians and the NAACP began to allow me to be a part of its activities. So when the civil rights movements came, I had a long background of black contact and black friends. And then when I was in Elizabeth City, 99% of the migrants who came through in the spring to harvest the cabbage and the potatoes were black. And I got contact with them through black ministers and other leaders, so that I was greatly enriched with friends—close friends—in the black community long before the 1954 decision.