The Rev. Billy Graham and Civil Rights

Since the evangelist Dr. Billy Graham died earlier this week, there’s been a stunning degree of historical revisionism about Graham’s record on civil rights. CNN’s takedown, “Where Billy Graham ‘missed the mark,'” asks “How can anyone call Graham a great pastor when he refused to take a clear, unequivocal public stand against the greatest moral evil America faced in his day: racial segregation?”

“There is no excuse ever for hatred. No excuse ever for bigotry,” Graham once said in a sermon. “We’ve got to love as God loved us.”

But, this downplays the important role Graham played as a moral voice opposing racism. Graham was preaching against segregation a decade before Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

“There is no scriptural basis for segregation,” Graham told a Mississippi crusade audience in 1952. “It may be there are places where such is desirable to both races, but certainly not in the church.” In Chattanooga, TN, a year later, Graham asked the usher to remove the ropes that had been erected to separate whites from blacks. When he refused, Graham walked down off the stage and took down the ropes himself. A small gesture by today’s standards, but in the south of the early 1950s, it was shocking. The head usher resigned.

Graham was an early supporter of Martin Luther King’s ministry and invited him to speak at a crusade in 1957.  When King was arrested in the early 1960s, Graham bailed him out of jail. Of Dr. Graham, Martin Luther King said, “had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been.”

It is true that Graham was tepid about getting overly involved in political activism — something he later came to regret — nevertheless, Graham played an important role as a moral leader speaking out against prejudice and his advocacy was seen by many as radical by the standards of the 1950s South. It earned him the condemnation of fundamentalists preachers like Bob Jones, who forbade his students from attending Graham’s crusade when it came to South Carolina. Jones said of Graham’s insistent support of integration, “he is doing more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man.”

Graham used his influence with Presidents to encourage change. In 1957 he advised President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard to enforce integration of Little Rock Central High School. When he held a crusade there two years later, he came under intense pressure to hold segregated services. Graham refused, threatening to cancel the event rather than do so.

Many, including President Bill Clinton, credited Graham’s 1959 crusade in Little Rock with dismantling resistance to integration. People were “on the verge of violence,” Clinton said, “and yet, tens of thousands of black and white Christians together in a football stadium….It was the beginning of the end of the old south in my home state. I will never forget it,” Clinton said years later.

In the 1960s, Graham was speaking out against apartheid in South Africa before it was cool. He refused to hold crusades there in protest of the country’s policy of enforced racial separation.

In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Graham wrote: “Churches in another nation, South Africa, strongly urged us to come, but I refused; the meetings could not be integrated, and I felt that a basic moral principle was at stake.” Religion scholar Michael G. Long says Graham’s 1960 boycott blazed a trail for the many boycotts that followed.

However, Graham was uncomfortable with civil disobedience, preferring a more cautious approach. “No matter what the law may be—it may be an unjust law—I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it. Otherwise, you have anarchy,” Graham said. He worried that some civil rights leaders wanted to go “too far too fast,” he said in the early 1960s. “Only the supernatural love of God through changed men can solve this burning question.” And, although he believed his cause just, Graham declined to march with Dr. King.

“Despite an upbringing where the society around him placed a governmental stamp of approval on segregation, over his life Graham wrestled with the tension of racial justice in America,” says John Richards, the Managing Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

“Because the culture around him felt this way, at times, Graham had to make a choice,” Richards says. “There were occasions when Graham relented when it came to the social norms of the day, allowing some segregated rallies for the sake of gospel proclamation.”

There was always a tension for Graham on race relations between the moral message and fear of going too far and turning off the people who needed to hear the message most. There is fair criticism here, and it is a criticism that Graham would later make of himself. According to friends, Graham deeply regretted that he didn’t do more. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Billy Graham did a great deal.

“When it comes to his own feet of clay around issues of race,” Richards says. “Graham himself would likely say that he leaned on the same gospel he proclaimed. For grace when he didn’t get it right.”

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