Many tributes to Billy Graham after his death this week at age 99 cite the famous evangelist’s stance on racial issues—tensions that much of the white evangelical church had long sidelined or even perpetuated by the time the civil rights movement took place in America.

Graham invited Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at a crusade in 1957 and to speak at a later ministry retreat to help his team “understand the racial situation in America more fully,” according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). The relationship between the two legendary American preachers continued as King’s prominence rose.

Several accounts of their interactions mention Graham even posting bail for King when he was imprisoned in the 1960s, though different sources site different dates and locations for the anecdote.

Of course in 1963, King famously penned his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from behind bars, specifically addressing his disappointment in white clergy for resisting his activism and suggesting he wait for change.

But the civil rights leader did nod to Graham’s willingness to address the issue of integration from a gospel perspective in his touring and preaching. King is quoted as saying, “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.”

Graham was known for integrating his ministry and insisting on integrated crowds at many of his rallies, sometimes literally moving the ropes meant to divide white and black attendees. His efforts “contributed to the theological defeat of segregation,” said Steven P. Miller, author of Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican ...

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