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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with J. Randolph Taylor, May 23, 1985. Interview C-0021. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Taylor tries to overcome his racism

Raised in a liberal southern tradition, Taylor believed that because he was not a race-baiter, he was not a racist. Through a series of friendships and interracial alliances, he came to see differently, and he explains how he and his wife fought to overcome their prejudice.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with J. Randolph Taylor, May 23, 1985. Interview C-0021. 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

By a strange providence I ended up in Washington, D.C. as my first pastorate, and it was in '56, the beginning, really, of the civil rights struggle. I was in an inner city parish that became increasingly aware of the difficulties of the structures and the systems of a major metropolitan area, so that my first parish shaped an additional concern for me, and that is the whole matter of social change and the whole matter of how you affect social change without destroying a community and its structures. And there I would say that there have been a combination of influences. Again, one comes out of one's own personal experience. The person who probably shaped me most helpfully during that time was Martin Luther King, Jr. I came to know him personally and can tell you about that if that's an interest to follow up. But through his writings as well as through being a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with him, he was a major shaper in a different area, and there are others who have helped me in terms of the whole field of social dynamics.
Let's turn to this question then, if you could comment a little more in depth on your involvement in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and your relationship with Martin Luther King.
I grew up in the South, so that I was aware of the difficulty, the distance between the races, and I can tell you a whole lot more than you want to know about what it means. Did you grow up in the South? Well, it was fascinating. In fact, I shared with a group of North Carolinians up near Asheboro just on Tuesday of this week my whole pilgrimage in terms of racial attitudes. It's fascinating to reflect back on how I was unconsciously conditioned toward a kind of cultured racism. I wasn't a race-baiter and I never saw a lynching. The brutality of the relationships was to me a subject that I came on in academic studies of the history of the South. But I experienced the distance between the races and never quite understood why it was and was told it was a matter of education and so forth. But it was not really until I got into Washington, which was then a predominantly black community under the control of Congress at that time without any right to vote; the citizens of the District had no right to vote. It was ruled by committees of the House of Representatives, which were ruled by those who had seniority, and the seniority people in the House of Representatives were Congressmen from the South. I remember the key figure was a Congressman from South Carolina named McMillan. We all called him "Judge McMillan." He really was. He was judge and everything else. It was a fascinating thing. He stayed in office in part by being able to report to his constituency in South Carolina that things were terrible in Washington because of the predominantly black population when, in fact, he was in charge. He was the effective one who accomplished whatever was done administratively in Washington, so he had a perfect cyclical system of security. He could see that things were bad in Washington and then would go down to South Carolina and report that they were bad. In other words, I really came to terms with the whole matter of structural racism on the streets of Washington, D.C. and became influenced by black citizens with whom I worked on a number of different councils and committees. Most notable was a man with whom my church, the Church of the Pilgrims, established a community relationship with the Church of the Redeemer, a predominantly black church. Both of these were Southern Presbyterian churches in the District of Columbia, and the man who was called as their pastor was a man named Jefferson Rogers. Jeff Rogers and I were about the same age, and his wife and my wife both grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, and it was one of those fascinating things where we sat down and we began to develop a relationship of complete candor. It took a little while to get absolutely honest with each other, but we began that kind of frank exchange of where we'd come from and what we saw as the situation. For instance, Mary Grace Rogers and Arline, as we sat at their table one night, discovered that they were both from Shreveport, and we talked about what that meant and so forth. It was perfectly amazing. Here were these two women about the same age, both interested in the same thing, both active in educational work, both active in the social life of the city, both active in the church and in youth conferences and all that sort of thing. When they sat down and talked together, all they really had in common was the weather. In other words, it was that distinct. There was a black community; there was a white community. And we wept over that. We began to realize the tragedy of that. I remember such helpful moments as when Jeff was talking about the predicament that blacks faced in terms of the structural racism. I remember saying to him, "Well, all I feel as a result of that is just pure guilt." And he said, "Guilt is not an adequate response. The trouble with guilt is that it paralyzes." That has stuck in my mind, and I think in some ways in part has been one of those moments of breakthrough for me, where I felt, "If you can do something about this, you really must do something about it." As a result of that friendship with him, which continues, we helped to form together the Washington chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Washington for the chartering of that chapter, and I met him and was with him on that occasion. I was with him on one or two other occasions that involved primarily meetings related to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.