Field Notes: An Interview with Rev. Ronald English

Rev. Ronald English, 2019. Photo by Emily Hilliard

Rev. Ronald English of Charleston, West Virginia was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1944. He grew up in the community surrounding the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta and his family was close with the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. English is a graduate of Morehouse College and served as ministerial assistant to Drs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr. He delivered a prayer at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. English was called to the First Baptist Church of Charleston in 1972 where he served for 21 years. He now serves as an interim minister in Charleston and is a consultant in healing and restorative justice.

In this interview (which has been edited for length and clarity) with state folklorist Emily Hilliard and American Friends Service Committee West Virginia Economic Justice Project director Rick Wilson, Rev. English speaks about his relationship with Dr. King, his work as a pastor and community leader in Charleston, and his mindfulness practice.

Emily Hilliard: Could you introduce yourself and tell me your name and when and where you were born?

Rev. Ronald English: Ronald English, born 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia.

EH: What do you do here in Charleston?

RE: Right now I’m interim minister and also a consultant in healing justice on a documentary that we have marketed across the state in order to get conversations going about restorative justice. 

Rev. English’s parents, Jethro and Auretha English, were introduced to each other by “Mamma” King when they sang in the choir together. His father’s father, Jethro English Sr., appears on the cornerstone of the Ebenezer Baptist Church’s historic sanctuary.  

EH: Why don’t you tell me about your family background?

RE: Born in Atlanta, 1944 right after the war. We lived in what was kind of a lower-middle class community, which was inclusive of Ebenezer Baptist Church where my mother and father met and were married. They were very close to the King family [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family]. They met in the choir that my mother directed, and my grandfather, Jethro English, Sr., had been deacon in the church and his name is on a cornerstone of the historic church. So that was kind of the neighborhood where we grew up.

I remember Dr. King when he was a student at Crozer Seminary, because he would come home during the summer. And his father would have him to preach and we really looked forward to that because he usually preached about twenty minutes and his dad would go on for about forty-five, so (laughs) we would really look forward to him coming on!

This was around the community that they called Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. As Black folk, we didn’t have access to a lot of the services, so that was the place where Black businesses proved themselves very self-sufficient. There were two banks, two insurance companies, a funeral home, and at that time the world famous Royal Peacock where some very outstanding guests would come from Jackie Wilson to… [Aretha Franklin]. So Auburn Avenue was kind of like the Wall Street of the South in Atlanta and it really was the answer to segregation in terms of knowing how self-sufficiently we were able to survive. That really had a strong stake in survival at that time growing up in Atlanta. 

EH: How long did you live in Atlanta?

RE: I lived there until I came here [to Charleston, West Virginia] in 1972. And that was quite a shift (laughs). I would not have come had it not been for the invitation to pastor at First Baptist Church of Charleston because I hadn’t had any exposure to West Virginia except a fifth grade teacher, who I thought was one of the meanest teachers in our elementary school. Her name was Miss Nolan, and she would come in demanding respect by saying, “I’m from the hills of West Virginia and I don’t take no stuff.” And I thought that wherever West Virginia is, I do not want to be there. (laughs)

So it was interesting when the call came by way of a friend of mine who was on the pulpit committee and she recommended me. That’s how I got to have an invitation to speak at First Baptist and they extended the call for me to come in 1972. 

Rick Wilson: One thing I think is interesting is that Vernon Johns who’s been called the forerunner of Dr. King was a pastor here in the 30s and 40s. Was that an attractive factor for you to come here?

RE: Oh yeah, yeah, it was. When I found out something about the history of First Baptist. Vernon Johns was there but before him was a minister by the name of Mordecai Johnson. Johnson left there and went to be president of Howard University and was not only one of the founding presidents of Howard but was also significant in how Howard became a very powerful and prestigious Black university. And then Vernon Johns had been here. He had a brilliant mind—he could speak about two or three different languages. Well, he was from Virginia and he had a strong entrepreneurial bent. First Baptist was very prestigious, but he believed in self-sufficiency to the extent of self-entrepreneurship so he owned a vegetable wagon that he would pull around to the front of the church and he had hams on there from Virginia and he would sell ’em, but that was kind of a violation of what the church’s image was supposed to represent. So he would often be chided about selling those hams. He said, “For every call I get for the sick, I get 5 calls for hams!” (laughs) So he was then Dr. King’s predecessor at Dexter [Avenue Baptist Church] and was acknowledged as the forerunner to the movement.

EH: What was Dr. King like?

RE: I often get asked that question and it shifts in my head every time I think about it. He had a sense of humor that was not often seen because he presented himself in the persona of what he was expected to do and to be. When we were growing up, he did take some time with us. Ironically, he never—and it might have been because he was concerned about what might happen—but he never campaigned for any of us to actually join the movement. I went to the March on Washington, participated in some sit-ins in Atlanta, but he never really pushed that on us. He would mention it absolutely in every sermon, but he never really pushed that.

But I admired him from the standpoint of leadership in terms of how he was able to gel the minds of a very diverse group in that cadre. Andrew Young was the more conservative. Wyatt Tee Walker, who I knew, was the executive director and he was a little bit more of a firebrand. And then Hosea Williams was a firebrand and so having that respect from that cadre where they would all express their opinions, particularly in the planning circles of SCLC. He would let them go at it, but then he would also be the one they consulted. So he was a collaborative leader—that’s what I’m getting at—and his charisma showed up in that way, as well as the national stage, in terms of his speaking. But he was a model of collaboration and became the symbol for how he wanted the organization to represent and be duplicated in other organizations during the movement.

Rev. English’s copy of Dr. King’s last book, Where do We go From Here: Chaos or Community?, personally inscribed to Rev. English by Dr. King. 

EH: Did he continue to have a relationship with Ebenezer throughout the rest of his life?

RE: Oh yeah, he was co-pastor. He was called there to be co-pastor after he left Montgomery, and he did that because after the Montgomery movement, he wanted to set up SCLC headquarters in Atlanta. So he did that and SCLC headquarters was on Auburn Avenue, a walk from Ebenezer, and so that was why that was so convenient. So yeah, he came to pastor Ebenezer as co-pastor. I’ve forgotten the precise date but he was very much there.

One of the things that comes up most now is how his last speech resonates so much with me. “It doesn’t matter to me now. I’ve been to the mountaintop.” I have given more thought to that recently in terms of how it really said that he was at rest. I’ve often believed that as the bullet hit his neck he probably said, “free at last.” And he had often said that he had long conquered the fear of death. So in that sense, when he was talking about, “It really doesn’t matter,” it means that he had found out what really mattered. And his life did not matter in terms of what he had given to it. The vision of going to the mountaintop and looking over and then the notion of “I may not get there, but we as a people…” That’s a powerful piece that I don’t think anybody had—well, I’m sure everybody’s thought about—but I guess it just came to me more recently in terms of how there is a sense of a vision, there is a sense of a collective movement beyond what we feel are the imperatives against that now. And the need for having some spiritual motivation, knowing what matters and how it matters and also what does not matter. That’s a critical choice.

RW: He was there actually in solidarity with some garbage workers who were on strike in Memphis. 

RE: Oh yeah absolutely. That’s what took him there.

EH: Some people say that in that speech he had this foresight of what might be ahead.

RE: I think there’s something to that. And that was kind of what I meant, elaborating on that theme and ironically, he was not supposed to be there that particular night because he caught a cold. He was back at the hotel and Ralph Abernathy had gone over to take his place to speak for him. And when Ralph got there and saw how folks were there to hear him, he called back and said “Martin, you gotta come.” And that’s when he got up and went. 

But there’s something I’ve always noticed about the camera’s position on his face during that last speech. I haven’t seen that particular position at the lower left side. Most shots are face on. But this one was from the lower left side and it had that perspective and as he looked to his left as he was making the speech, the intensity in his eyes says something about his preparedness. That just has always gripped me in terms of how the way he looked as he said that, it was really a way of confirming what he expected and how fortunate it was that he did get there that night to make that speech as his final one. 

I served as his assistant for a couple of years at Ebenezer, and he licensed me, along with his father, at the church, so I served as his assistant minister of youth at Ebenezer. He often wanted to be where he could not be, but I remember times when he did entertain us and one time went over to his father’s house—he was there and he just wanted to be regular and get down with being with us and you know, let us know how available, how concerned he was, and how much he cared and loved us and all that. And he got at the piano and started playing a Beethoven sonata. And we didn’t know he could do that, but he transformed that right quickly into the boogie-woogie and he was running his left hand up and down the keyboard as though—so that was just a way Doc would show his sense of humor in ways that were surprising. But he also was connecting with us because he was also saying, “It’s not all that serious!” (laughs) So he had that side of him.

Coretta Scott King when she came to First Baptist in Charleston as Women’s Day speaker in 1976. Mrs Ruth Norma was the chairperson. 

RW: So you’ve got some good stories here. There’s a poster on the wall about the Textbook Wars

RE: Yeah, I forgot about that! Not long after I got here, they were changing the curriculum at the Board of Education, and they were being more inclusive. That was the time when Black history had become a dominant theme in terms of how the movement would be continued and it showed where we had made some advances as far as the civil rights agenda. There were portions of American history that had been totally ignored and left out. Therefore, one of the phases of the Black history movement that really began a Black consciousness movement that developed out of Oakland and that area of California, was the insistence of recognizing Black presence in American history. So that was part of what had taken place at the time that the Board of Education decided to make some adjustments in their curriculum. Some of the books that were in there were kind of offensive to some conservative politicians, Christians, and all that. I can remember particularly Eldridge Cleaver being one of the objected texts (laughs) and because there was some cursing and just some of what we call some authentic expressions of what it meant being Black (laughs). And that was very offensive to some folk around here.

That has been given some credit as being the roots of a cultural war in West Virginia. So one of the aspects of it was that the book protest became symbolic of a cultural war in our community that had a larger dimension across the nation. Then that set up looking at how inclusive the curriculum was, and how other aspects of education were also in a state that needed to be challenged. So that was a significant moment as far as being introduced to what it meant to be in West by God Virginia.

RW: You have another West Virginia story that puts us in a little bit better space. You had a couple experiences with law enforcement I believe…

RE: Oh yeah, yeah. I often use this in training not only with law enforcement but in general in terms of how unconscious bias is something that afflicts us all. I mean it’s not just on one side of the spectrum. So I contrast two events: one that had happened to me down south and one that happened to me here. Down south, my dad and I had a janitorial service on the weekends as I was working my way through college. I was on the way back from a place that I had cleaned in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and it was about maybe 1, 1:30 or so in the morning. And on this road back, there must have been something about the Dodge Dot that I was driving at the time—red Dodge Dot—that attracted the attention of a state trooper!

EH: (laughs)

RE: (laughs) So he pulled up behind me, lights on, and I knew I wasn’t speeding. So he pulled up and came up to the car and asked for my license and all that, and I was asking him why had he stopped me. By that time, I was standing before him as he was getting my information, and he pulled out the flashlight from his belt and hit my right hand with such impact that it almost broke a couple of fingers, and said, “N****r I don’t have to have a reason to stop you!” And all of a sudden, nobody was coming anywhere down the road and it was just me and him and those notions about what could happen in that kind of situation really sprung very—yeah. Yeah. When he said “Get in the back of the car,” I started to really fear what was gonna happen next. So I was really glad when we did get to the jail because that meant that what I had feared most was not something that had happened. So I had to spend the night in jail, because at that time there were complications for somebody who didn’t have bail money, who didn’t live in the area—the bail process that took all night. 

But I came here in West Virginia and I had taken my family up to New York and we were coming back down what is now I-79. At that time, they didn’t have very many gas services open. I had forgotten to get gas in Pittsburgh coming down 79 and I was about to run out of gas around Clarksburg. I saw a state trooper sign saying, “State trooper facility” and I felt like I could pull in there and park and at least be safe until the stations opened in the morning. As soon as I pull in there, this state trooper comes out fully dressed and as he’s headed toward me, I’m thinking this is not gonna be good, because of my memory of what had happened before. He came up to the window and asked me, “Can I help you?” And that was a total shock. I said, “Yeah, I’m in a situation where I’m about to run out of gas and I thought I could be safe if I got in here.” He said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna call Joe who has a gas station about a couple miles from here, and I’m going say to him ‘You’re gonna have to open that gas station early this morning because he has a customer on the way.'” (sighs) He did that and then he said, “I’m gonna follow you and your family over there just in case.” And he did that.

When I use that [as an example], it’s because I had transferred the bias of the prior trooper who I felt dangerous, to this trooper who wanted to help. And I was so impressed with that, I remember writing the governor who was Governor Arch Moore at the time, telling him how this trooper really not only represented the troopers of West Virginia, but the state of West Virginia in terms of how I had come to experience that as being something different than I had encountered before. And expected, you know. So it just kind of shows how patterns of unconscious bias have a role in all of us.

EH: So I know there were sit-ins in Charleston that predated the Greensboro sit-in, but when you arrived here in ’72 was there an existing civil rights movement here? 

RE: That had been as I understood it and found out, the sit-in movement here at the Diamond was a part of what one group that was affiliated with the NAACP and then there was an organization that got an affiliation with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Homer Davis, who was a minister here and a well-known activist in the community, was responsible for engaging SCLC to come here. So they had a protest downtown and I’m not sure if there were arrests, but that was an arousal (laughs) of sorts.

So that had been the groundwork for some expression of the civil rights activist agenda in Charleston. But that was a little before I came and so it was still in the air in terms of what had happened and how people had been engaged in that. But they moved on—Another thing that had happened in Charleston that people were engaged in and activists were around, but they move on because of other conditions and opportunities that become more available. But yeah, I do recall and I think I still have some pictures of that kind of activist engagement before I came in the early ’70s.

Letter to Rev. English signed by Jimmy Carter on his visit to Charleston and by Barack Obama on his visit during his first campaign for President. 

RW: Now there was another big fight that I think you were here for, about the whole urban renewal of the Triangle District and the mall and all that dismantling?

RE: Yeah, Rev. Matthew Watts, a good friend of mine, has really done some extensive documentation on that. The Triangle area had already been destroyed when I came here and at that time, what is now the Super Block was just vacant land. They were dealing with the issues of what to do with the people who had moved and urban renewal responsibility for those who had moved and some had gotten better housing. That’s when some other housing projects happened in the area. But it never restored the kind of community that was in the Triangle District.

But I was surprised when I came here the first time to find out the First Baptist was downtown. Because most First Baptist churches, even those that are Black, which were kinda rare from my experience, had been out somewhere else. So to find that it was right down in the heart of town was interesting, but then I found out that there had been a Black community in that area that had a hotel, still had two funeral homes—this had been a place of Black enterprise back in the day. And that Triangle area and what happened with downtown, and also what happened when people closed and people died and moved on, kinda destroyed that hub of Black capitalism. That was what was happening at the time that I came and then as I saw the development of the Super Block from there. But it was a time of focused transition at the time that I showed up here.

RW: I know in addition to being a pastor, you have a passion and a lot of experience working in and around prisons. Do you want to talk about that?

RE: Yeah. A very good friend of mine was the Deputy Commissioner of Corrections. At that time the maximum security prison for adult offenders was Moundsville and they were moving here to an area called Mount Olive in the upper Kanawha Valley. He thought that that was gonna be a transition in the administration and that it would become more inclusive, so he was asking me about being a part of that shift. So I was one of two unit mangers up there. But that was my first experience in the criminal justice system as an administrator. Didn’t take long for me to find out, that was not for me! (laughs) But I stayed there a while.

More recently, I just had a conversation this morning with the Deputy Commissioner of Corrections about how we can institute some practices of restorative justice in the criminal justice system. He was very receptive to that, particularly in areas that are housing teenagers. The school-to-prison [pipeline] has been dominant in terms of how many teenagers are affected.

I was very glad to hear that [interest from him] because that is a part of where we are now with mass incarceration and how we can use that as a way of shifting not only punishment for offenders who are not dangerous, but how we shift the consciousness of how offenders need to be treated.

Rev. Ron English and Rick Wilson, 2019. Photo by Emily Hilliard

RW: In addition to being a Baptist pastor, you’re interested in mindfulness and some of that. How did you get there?

RE: A friend of mine invited me to go on a retreat on centering prayer that was held in Colorado and at that time it had a fresh audience and so I found some things in that that I really appreciated, in terms of it being different from my tradition. It was more grounded in a contemplative tradition, kind of a Quaker tradition.

By the way, one of the spiritual fathers of Dr. King was a man by the name of Howard Thurman and Howard Thurman chose not to be active in the movement itself, but he was a resource of spiritual transformation. He founded the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco and then he became the Dean of Chapel at Boston University. He had a very kind of a collective, community, and cosmic consciousness about what it is that controls the way that we behave and think and understand the unity of the human race. And that was something that intrigued me. 

But the centering prayer retreat was one thing that got me on the path of spiritual transformation in a more quiet way. Because in Baptist churches and in our tradition, you know, making noise (laughs), making joyful noise is the way we celebrate! So this was totally different than what I had experienced. It has been something I’ve been in and out of at different times, but more recently the contemplative work of Richard Rohr has really engaged my attention in how you can be activist and spiritually oriented at the same time. I mean it’s not like you have to retreat in order to…you can retreat and engage at the same time. It’s a way of centering on what it is that you, as Howard Thurman used to say, what it is that you “want want.” Rather than what is expected of you. And that has been a way for me to deal with what’s beneath the surface. What’s going on in the basement, what’s moving underground. 

Because when you shove a lot of things that you’re expected to do—and particularly it was a burden as well as a blessing, but sometimes more of a burden, to be somebody associated with Martin Luther King Jr., because you know, you’re kind of expected to do some of that. And the expectation is internal as well, and when it seemed like that’s not being achieved, then that could be a place of depression and all that good stuff. So this was liberating in order to see that the basic questions are those that are answered from the inside, rather than those that are assumed from the outside, as far as who we are and what we want to do. And so the contemplative tradition has really engaged my interest in a lot of ways more recently and I found a place in it that feels at home.