Jesus and Justice
When people think of Billy Graham, they think "evangelist," "preacher," or even "godliness." They don't think "leader." This is a mistake according Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley inThe Leadership Secrets of Billy GrahamMyra and Shelley, Christianity Today International CEO and editorial vice president respectively, interviewed dozens of people who have observed or worked closely with Graham, and they describe the many ways Graham has exerted strong and wise leadership. The following excerpt shows Graham leading on race, especially during his 1957 New York City crusade.
At first Graham tried to carve a middle ground that opposed both forced integration as well as forced segregation. He relied on the example of Billy Sunday, who had followed local custom by preaching to integrated audiences in the North and to mostly segregated audiences in the South. So, in many of his earliest meetings, Graham followed suit.
But the dramatic times left little maneuvering room for moderates. Reporters demanded to know why he could not speak to integrated audiences in South Carolina and Georgia just as he did in California and Massachusetts. They asked why he never addressed racism in the South.
Graham chose to make his stand in the heart of the segregated South. He initially agreed to segregate the audience during his 1952 campaign in Jackson, Mississippi, but rejected Governor Hugh White's suggestion to conduct separate meetings for blacks. Meanwhile, Graham prepared to make a much bolder statement. Holding segregated events had always struck him as wrong, but he'd never chosen to take decisive actionuntil now. Walking toward the ropes that separated blacks and whites, Graham tore them down.
Mystified and uncomfortable ushers tried to put the ropes back up. Graham personally stopped them.
This symbolically powerful gesture marked a major ministry watershed. He never again led a segregated campaign.
"There is no scriptural basis for segregation. It may be there are places where such is desirable to both races, but certainly not in the church," Graham told his Mississippi audience. "The ground at the foot of the Cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the Cross."
Nearly two years before the famed Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared "separate but equal" arrangements unconstitutional, Graham threw his clout behind the civil-rights movement. Though tearing down the ropes in Jackson seems in retrospect a simple decision, his action earned the respect of many blacks and the enmity of segregationists. In so doing, he signaled to his followers that racial inequality should not be tolerated in the church.
"He outgrew Southern racism much earlier than his Southern colleagues did," long-term colleague Sherwood Wirt in a letter to us said of Graham. "He thought like a large ruler. His vision outstripped all of us."
As he had ministered throughout the country, he had widened his contacts with the black community. At the same time, he knew where the growing edge of the white community was, and if he went too far ahead of it, they would write him off, and he would lose all influence. He had to strategically communicate his message of love and hope, including his vision of racial harmony and reconciliation, to a wide range of constituents.
His stance had its effect. Charles Marsh, author of God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, grew up in the South. In his memoir, The Last Days: A Son's Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a New South, he tells of how his father, a pastor in a small Mississippi town, was influenced in his pilgrimage "from a son of the segregated South to preacher of the sermon 'Amazing Grace for Every Race.'" Writes Marsh, "Billy Graham had long refused to hold meetings before segregated audiences, and this conviction stirred my father's willingness to change, if not to see racial equality as ordained by God. 'The ground at the foot of the Cross is level,' Billy liked to say."