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Two Preachers Recall Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s: StoryCorps in W.Va.


West Virginia Public Broadcasting and StoryCorps have teamed up for a series of conversations about religious faith told by West Virginians. We’ll be bringing you these conversations over the next few weeks. We begin the series with Ronald English and James Patterson. Both men are ministers in Charleston. They also share the experience of challenging racism during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

“I remember teachers telling you that you had to be twice as smart and twice as quick as your white counterparts just to make it,” recalled James Patterson, who was born in 1952 in Maxton, North Carolina.

When he was in the 11th grade, his school was integrated. “That’s where we had this proliferation of academies, particularly Christian academies, that were white only. Because there were white people who decided they were not going to send their kids to school with us.”

Ronald English served as assistant to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “I gave the prayer at his funeral, which was one of the saddest moments of my life.”

In this conversation English and Patterson talk about the connection between black churches and the Civil Rights Movement. “The black church was the bastion of liberation. It was what black folk felt they controlled,” said English.

“And the black preacher was not under the control of the white establishment. And therefore the source of the movement, it’s no accident that it came out of the church and that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist preacher. And that’s because it was ingrained in the wood of the black church, that it would be about the business of liberating folk.”

Patterson said his work as a minister has been shaped by his experiences of growing up in the deep south, where he experienced racism, and by his belief that religious faith could help bring about social change.

“I believe that we are called, not only to fight what we consider sin, from a theological perspective, but we are called to fight injustice, and we are called to fight inequality, and we are called to fight evil, in whichever way it comes. That’s my calling,” said Patterson.

This interview was recorded as part of the American Pilgrimage Project, a partnership of the national nonprofit, StoryCorps, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. This story was recorded in Charleston, West Virginia and was produced by Dan Collison.

The director of the American Pilgrimage Project is Paul Elie. Adelina Lancianese, Anjuli Munjal, Christina Stanton, Gautam Srikishan and Maura Johnson also contributed to this story.