Why Billy Graham Was a Champion of the Civil Rights Movement
- Lauren Sanchez
- 2018 23 Feb
Billy Graham was well known for his evangelism in the mid-to-late 20th Century, but he was also known for his activism in Civil Rights issues. Though there has been much debate over the last several days about what Dr. Graham accomplished, including thoughts such as did he do enough? and even the claim that he hurt Dr. Martin Luther King’s ministry, Dr. Graham did what he felt he was called to do.
Associate Evangelist, Ralph Bell, was interviewed about Dr. Graham’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. He said, “Everybody’s calling is not the same, and Mr. Graham’s calling is the proclamation of the Gospel, in which, if he could reach men’s hearts through the Spirit of God, that can change a man’s whole life, completely.”
In the early 1950’s, a few years after Billy Graham started his Crusades, he became greatly troubled by the segregation of his audiences to which he preached. Upon asking an usher to remove the ropes which divided the people, the usher refused and even resigned. So, Dr. Graham, himself, removed said ropes and preached to an integrated audience.
Desiring for even more diversity amongst his audience members, Dr. Graham asked friend and associate evangelist, Howard Jones, what he could do, to which, Jones replied: “go where they are.” Dr. Graham agreed and visited two large black churches in New York, one in Harlem, another in Brooklyn. The members of the churches were so touched that Dr. Graham had visited them, that they agreed to come to his event at Madison Square Garden. “And that was the beginning of the change of the racial climate at Madison Square Garden,” Jones said, “There was a browning, a coloring of that tremendous crowd.”
In 1957, Dr. Graham invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to pray at his Crusade in New York. At the time, Dr. King was mostly revered among people of color. As such, Dr. Graham received several threatening messages from white people who disapproved of his choice. Unswayed by this, Dr. Graham stayed true to his convictions, and on July 18 of that year, Dr. King joined Dr. Graham onstage. Commenting on this event, daughter of Dr. King, Bernice King, said, "...I think with Dr. Graham and Dr. King on the same platform, more than likely, sent a very powerful message, especially to those in the South."
The two continued their friendship, with Dr. Graham lending his encouragement to Dr. King and even affording his bail in 1963 (Dr. King was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, wherein he penned the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail). He would later say of his friend, Dr. King’s untimely death: “It comes as one of the greatest shocks of my entire life.”
Continuing the work of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Graham influenced presidents such as Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, impressing upon them the importance of integration and racial equality. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, then-Senator Hubert Humphrey solicited Dr. Graham’s help. Dr. Graham told it this way: “...’Billy,’ he said, ‘this bill will never really be implemented unless it comes from here” (pointed to his heart). “And he said, this is the job of you and the church, to help bring about love in the hearts of people.”
Dr. Graham’s vast notoriety reached the other side of the world, and he was asked to preach in South Africa. Because of their apartheid, Dr. Graham had refused until he could preach to an integrated audience. In 1973, twenty years later, he was finally granted this request. He preached that Christianity is not exclusive to any one people group, but that the “Gospel is for everyone.” Though apartheid did not end until the 1990’s, Dr. Graham’s words affected the culture, with local newspapers reporting his message.
He continued to champion the movement for racial equality in South Africa, writing letters to Nelson Mandela while he was in prison. After Mandela was released and later elected President in 1994, Dr. Graham released a statement, supporting him, speaking to his unifying quality as a leader.
Throughout his long life, Dr. Billy Graham stood for justice. He stood against oppression and racial inequality. Though he did not march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he championed civil rights in his own way. Bernice King said, “I think both Dr. Graham and my father were trying to make the world a better place...They were different, obviously, in their style and their approach, but I think their heart and their goal was the same.” Dr. Graham insisted that the way for people’s hearts to change toward segregation was through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This was the belief that carried him through his ministry and his engagement in the Civil Rights Movement.