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

Mending relationships rent by racial disagreement

Taylor argues that the northerners who participated in the southern civil rights movement and then returned home without making changes in their own communities treated the social movement too flippantly. He explains the sorts of opposition he faced regarding racial issues and the peace movement and the ways he worked to overcome the disagreements his stances caused.

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

What sorts of opposition did you experience within the Southern Presbyterian denomination over this racial issue?
Well, you know, in retrospect, I've been really very blessed by the fact that I was of the South and that my roots are in the South and that I lived in the South. Let me say that what that meant is that I could never go off somewhere and demonstrate my zeal for interracial relationships and then go back home and assume that I had done my thing. That's too easy a way out that affected the whole civil rights movement. It was too easy a movement. The fact is, in the South, when we marched we had to march on the courthouse that probably had some of our elders and deacons as its officials. We had to demonstrate against business establishments that were owned and operated by members of our congregations. Therefore, you had always to stay in touch with people with whom you disagreed, and in retrospect, that was a very salutary thing. That meant that there was no sort of quick fix. You had to very carefully work at what you did, and then you had to go and be sure relationships were still intact with those with whom you had been in opposition. Now that's hard to do, but that's what pastoral care is. It's like surgery a little bit. You need the surgeon to come in and lance the boil, but then somebody's got to change the dressing and see that the healing is done and so forth. And that's part of what was involved for those of us who were southern whites, is to not just lance the boil but to see to the healing that's involved. It's painful, but it's a very important discipline. And let me give an example from a different area. I found it very helpful to be pastor in Washington, D.C. during the early years of the protests against Vietnam, for the reason that I had on my session and diaconate and in our congregation a large number of people who worked at the Pentagon. In other words, the military establishment is pretty powerful in Washington, and here we were talking about that we have made a mistake in committing ourselves militarily in southeast Asia. Well, once again, you couldn't just paint a sign and say, "Hey, that's a mistake." You had to make that witness, but then you had to sit down with the very people whose job it was to implement the policy of military involvement in southeast Asia and try to think through, "How do we hold together in the life of faith and the community of faith? We disagree on this, but here's where I'm coming from. Where are you coming from?" That sort of thing. And I've always been grateful that I've never been able to be quick and easy and superficial about social issues. I've always had to sit down with people who disagreed with me and keep a relationship. I think that's an important reality in the southern church, that the change has come; it's been painful, it's been slow, but it's very authentic. You get a white southerner who's really dealt with his instinctive racism, and he or she has already dealt with racial feelings that the rest of the country doesn't even know it has.
How has your political liberalism shaped your status within the denomination? Did you feel or experience any isolation during the sixties by fellow clergymen?
Yes and no. I did feel some, yeah. There were some lonely years. But on the other hand, there was a growing realization on the part of people of conscience that change had to come, and, while they might not have been approving of this method or that, there was a general feeling of a need for change. The Fellowship of Concern that I mentioned to you before was probably influential here, in that it quickly became a kind of support group, so one was not isolated but had colleagues who came from the same tradition. The other thing to be said about that is that I am really from the South, as I've said. I've indicated that one of my ancestors was the first President of Davidson. Another ancestor was Stonewall Jackson's chaplain. I had family that fought all through the Civil War, a great-great-grandfather who was a moderator of the old Southern Presbyterian Church many years ago. In other words, I had impeccable Southern credentials [laughter], and that helps. My father's position in terms of World Missions gave me a breadth of introduction that I shall always be grateful for, and I would oftentimes talk to Dad about that, that "I hope I'm not just using your influence," and he was delighted. He said, "What you're doing is directly related to what went on in World Missions." And then one more thing. You have to remember where I began, in terms of seminary and Scotland and A.M. Hunter and James Denney and all that. With all that civil rights involvement, I'm still basically a Biblical theologian. I'm still a teaching and preaching pastor, and I have seldom tried to preach any political solutions from the pulpit. My feeling about the pastoral responsibility is that in the pulpit and in the worship service, you help people to grapple with Moses and Amos and Jeremiah and Jesus, and you help them to see what the Word means for them and for their life and for their systems and their jobs and their structures. And then during the week, you try to demonstrate that in where you put yourself and your time. But I've tried to keep a right careful distinction there, so that in retrospect, I think that probably is how I have been able to continue as a minister in the Southern Presbyterian Church through all of that hurricane and, I hope, be helpful.