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 South, to CNN.
History tells us Graham had a friendship with King, promoted integration, and tried to improve the church’s racial understanding in the midst of the civil rights movement. [See “Level Ground at the Cross” in CT’s special tribute issue.] But it’s up to modern eyes to consider how exactly to characterize Graham’s racial legacy as a whole, decades later.
In response to articles championing his boldness on race, Anthony Bradley, chair of the religious and theological studies program at The King’s College, said Graham was “certainly a prophetic gospel preacher, not a prophetic voice for black equality.”
Graham declined to participate with King in the March on Washington and other demonstrations in the early ’60s, implying that King assured his work was best focused on mass evangelism. Some civil rights leaders suggest Graham may have overstated his agreement with King, who repeatedly urged that white pastors do more to publicly take a stand for racial justice.
As Edward Gilbreath, author of Reconciliation Blues and Birmingham Revolution, chronicled for CT, Graham was before his time in preaching against segregation in the church as early as 1952. But when pressed, he admitted he’d default to social norms in a given place. (“I came to Jackson to preach only the Bible and not to enter into local issues.”)
Graham’s desire to see the races come together in the church—including demanding integrated seating at a 1953 crusade; integrating his own ministry staff in 1957; and voicing support for potential anti-segregation laws that same year—were enough to illicit name-calling and criticism from supporters, all years before King’s biggest demonstrations or major civil rights legislation made it to Congress.
“I think we can say Billy Graham was less racist than many of his peers yet he still fell far short of being an anti-racist advocate or activist,” Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, tweeted. “We can do so without completely discounting the good he did, his importance to American history, and without mischaracterizing him.”
Graham’s mixed legacy on racial issues is a result of the nature of his ministry, which emphasized sharing the gospel over making policy changes, according to John C. Richards Jr., managing director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
“His focus on individual salvation led to some misses when it came to addressing the racism of his day. For me, this is just a reminder that each one of us has feet of clay,” wrote Richard, who also serves as a board member for The Witness, in a blog post for The Exchange.
“I think Graham would have liked to be remembered in this way. A man who loved Jesus. A man who preached the gospel without apology. But a man who may have missed the mark at times when it came to race in America.”
That desire to reach people may have led to him conceding to racial divides in certain contexts, according to biographer William Martin.
"Graham clearly felt an obligation to speak against segregation, but he also believed his first duty was to appeal to as many people as possible,” he wrote in Graham’s official biography, A Prophet with Honor. “Sometimes he found these two convictions difficult to reconcile.”
Several black Christian leaders pointed out that Graham himself conceded that he didn’t do as much as he could have to address racial divides.
“Billy Graham assisted MLK Jr. several times in the [civil rights movement],” tweeted John Faison, pastor of Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville. “Later, Graham lamented, wishing he’d done more for the cause of equality. A giant confessed his own weaknesses. The measure of men is often not the heights they reach, but the humility they retain.”
John M. Perkins, the civil rights activist who founded the Christian Community Development Association, retold how in the 1970s, years after segregation had been abolished, Graham partnered with him to promote reconciliation and address de facto segregation among Mississippi Christians.
“I remember Billy telling me he regretted not doing more to remove the ropes of racism,” wrote Perkins in a tribute for The Exchange. “He repented and asked for my forgiveness. Even though he had done so much, Billy had humility and I admire him for this.”
Bill Clinton praised Graham’s push for integration in a statement addressing his passing. “I will never forget the first time I saw [Graham], 60 years ago in Little Rock, during the school integration struggle,” the former US president said. “He filled a football stadium with a fully integrated audience, reminding them that we all come before God as equals, both in our imperfection and our absolute claim to amazing grace.”
Graham’s efforts on race did make some difference, especially in the South, where his theological approach could reach audiences that activists could not, according to Miller, one biographer.
His sermons told crowds outright, “There is no excuse, ever, for bigotry and intolerance and prejudice,” and “we are to love as God loves us.”
CT’s special tribute issue to Graham includes an examination of how, in a segregated South, he diffused prejudice to bring people together.