Billy Graham: A crusader for Civil Rights

ARCHIVE: Billy Graham was a crusader for Civil Rights
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Billy Graham (Photo source: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Billy Graham (Photo source: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)

Reverend Billy Graham has been preaching for more than 60 years and his crusades are known around the world. What is not is well known is the role he played in the civil rights movement.

Billy Graham was lifelong friends with Martin Luther King. The two pastors held a revival together in New York City.

In fact, when King was jailed during a civil rights protest in 1963, Graham paid King's bail.

And at a time when almost everything else was segregated, blacks and whites stood together when the Reverend Billy Graham preached.

In 1957, Charlotte native Dorothy Counts faced a hostile mob at Harding High School and hooded Klansmen picketed Elizabeth Avenue's Visualite Theater.

Charlotte had not yet integrated its lunch counters, but Reverend Billy Graham one the city's most revered native sons would be known for preaching a message of inclusion.

"Jesus was not a white man, like me, nor was he as black as some of you," Graham preached during a sermon in 1971 at Chicago's McCormick Place.

But during his New York Crusades of 1957, Graham's crusades were open to everyone regardless of race.

"All of his crusades had inclusiveness in them," said AME Zion bishop George Battle.

Battle is on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

"And he was always concerned about Martin Luther King's safety," Battle said.

The two ministers stayed in touch during the turbulent 60's.

"He was a friend to Martin Luther King and Martin Luther King confided in him," Battle told WBTV. "And he gave Martin Luther King the best advice that he could give him by telling him to preach the gospel and certainly supported him."

Dr. Graham was baptized at the Chamlers Associate Reform Presbyterian Church at the corner of West Boulevard and South Tryon. It was a place that offered lessons in faith, and perhaps early exercises in tolerance.

"African-American people did come to his revivals, and did participate in going down front," Charlotte historian Dr. Dan Morrill said.

Despite his popularity, the television evangelist was criticized on the issue of race for being too conservative and not speaking out enough about segregation.

"I never heard him say that segregation was fundamentally immoral, that it was fundamentally wrong. I never did hear him say that," Morrill said."What I did hear him say was that all human beings are equal in the sight of God."

"Christianity is not a white man's religion and don't let anyone tell you it's white or black. Christ belongs to all people," preached during a sermon in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1973.

Graham declined 20 years' worth of invitations to preach in South Africa, waiting until he could be assured the attendees would be integrated.

Apartheid was at it's peak, and  Nelson Mandela was in jail. Graham was advocate of the qualities and things Mandela stood for.

"Christ belongs to all people," Graham preached. "He belongs to the whole world."

Having served on Graham's board for the last ten years, Battle is convinced that Graham has walked the talk of his message.

"I think Billy Graham will be remembered as a man who made a difference, and taught us that you can't name it and claim it, you got to live it."

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