W.W. Finlator took his Christianity seriously and acted on it all his long and productive life, speaking out on difficult issues and poking verbal thorns in the sides of those who could bring about change.
When he died Monday at age 93 in Raleigh, his strong voice of concern for the underprivileged and the downtrodden finally fell silent. But his courage and determination will long stand as a model of the loving critic.
For more than a quarter of a century, W.W. Finlator was pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh and one of the most recognizable church leaders in the South. He spoke out when few other ministers were talking about the evils of segregation, the morality of the Vietnam war, the inequities of capital punishment and the devastating social costs of ignorance and poverty.
He coupled his commitment to righting wrongs and bringing to life the teachings of Jesus with determined resistance to what he saw as inappropriate entanglements of church and state. He opposed the placement of copies of such religious symbols as the Ten Commandments in courthouses, arguing that they trivialized the faith. And he thought judges who insisted on opening court with a prayer forced defendants and others present into an unfair position.
“We can be grateful and comforted that men and women on the bench, and in other public offices, are committed to the belief and practice of prayer,” he wrote the Observer in a letter to the editor. “But all of us need the constant reminder that while the Constitution and holy scripture sustain us in private devotions, prayer from such public places as the judge’s bench violates the spirit of both.”
In pushing his views, Bill Finlator sometimes angered even his allies, as when he once urged the federal government to reduce its funding to the University of North Carolina because it had not eliminated the vestiges of a segregated system. But his point, though uncomfortable, was indisputable: UNC’s historically black campuses were poorly funded and badly equipped compared to predominantly white campuses.
W.W. Finlator’s outspoken ways cost him some friends and shortened his tenure at Pullen. Yet he continued to prod the public on issues he thought needed discussion and fundamental change. He spoke in pulpits across the South, organized volunteers and wrote pointed opinion pieces that argued for action — and kept on doing the Lord’s work as he saw it.