Lon Allison: Billy Graham and Racial Justice--An Excerpt from Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
"Salvation belongs to our God
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb."
Jesus was not a white man; he was not a black man. He came from that part of the world that touches Africa and Asia and Europe. Christianity is not a white man's religion and don't let anybody ever tell you that it's white or black. Christ belongs to all people; he belongs to the whole world.
Much of my life has been a pilgrimage-constantly learning, changing, growing and maturing. I have come to see in deeper ways some of the implications of my faith and message, not the least of which is in the area of human rights and racial and ethnic understanding.
This chapter is written especially for people in their twenties and thirties, though we older folks will appreciate it as well. Did Billy Graham only preach the gospel of the new birth? Or did he and his organization also seek justice and the alleviation of need in our world? There is no question that Billy's main calling was to restore the vertical relationship between people and God. During the fight for civil rights, he once said, "The race question will not be solved by demonstrations in the streets, but in the hearts of both Negro and white. There must be genuine love to replace prejudice and hate. This love can be supplied by Christ and only by Christ."[iii] He always believed that the new birth was essential to create a new kind of human, who could live by love only by being filled with God's love. Only then would hate and prejudice be overcome.
But preaching and living according to the gospel of Jesus Christ also includes pursuing justice and alleviating human suffering in the horizontal dimensions of life. I thank God that people in their twenties and thirties often care so much about this, because those of us who are older too easily forget about it. The theological idea behind this is bringing the good kingdom of God to every dimension of human life. The first words uttered by Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Mark are these: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mk. 1:15 esv). Jesus is expanding on what the coming of God's kingdom means in the Gospel of Luke:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set a liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Lk. 4:18-19 esv)
The kingdom Jesus speaks of is a new world order under his leadership, where right triumphs over evil. It was displayed vividly in his time on earth. The hungry were filled; the blind, lame, and diseased were healed. The elements such as raging storms were stilled. Even death was reversed in his presence. Those few years while he was incarnated into a fully human and fully divine being were a magnified picture of what God wants to do and is doing now on his earth through his church, through his people, and through his common grace poured out on the world. The kingdom of God is at hand. Hard to believe?
The media is not very good at sharing good news, since they know how our heads turn more quickly to see or hear what's bad, or what makes us scared. Therefore, it is easy to think much more is wrong than right in our world. But just this morning I watched the report of an apartment fire in New York City. Many died, but the little-known story is of the man who went back into the building and rescued four families. God is on the move in his world.
Perhaps a personal word is acceptable here. While I was writing this book, and Christmas 2017 was approaching, I learned that I have a rather rare and aggressive liver cancer. Many are praying for my immediate healing, and I would like that too. I have seen it happen in others. But far more often the God of the kingdom uses advancing science in the field of cancer treatments to bring about a good end. He can save people suffering from cancer by the prayers of friends as well as by the developments of medicine supported by prayer. I'm deeply grateful for both, and I know that advances in medical sciences are bringing wholeness and life to many. These are God's graces too. In all spheres of society and human existence, God is at work through his creation.
Early on, Billy Graham came to realize that racism was and is a deep injustice in our culture and that he had to do something about it. He was a contemporary of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and their friendship helped each of them grow.
One day, I was walking from my hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, to Belhaven College, where I was serving as a member of the board of directors. I passed an open-air stadium that could hold several thousand people, though it had not been maintained over the years. I asked Belhaven's president what the stadium's purpose was. He said, "That is where Billy Graham preached in 1952. It is also where he first pulled down the ropes of separation between blacks and whites."[iv] Now, there is some conjecture among scholars as to whether he "pulled down the ropes," meaning that he insisted that segregated seating come to an end, in the stadium in Mississippi in 1952, or the following year in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I believe he did it in both places. Billy Graham, a son of the Deep South, where Jim Crow laws of purported "separate but equal" were the law of the land, saw things differently. Jim Crow laws resulted in "separate but not equal," and Billy knew it. We have all seen or read stories of the inequities of those laws. At the age of thirty-four Billy was already grasping the inequities, and yet he still had a long way to go to truly see that all lives are equal.
We know he had been influenced by an African American man while still a boy in North Carolina. Reese Brown was the foreman of his father's dairy farm. Billy wrote, "Aside from my father, I admired no one as much as Reese Brown."[v] Brown, a distinguished veteran of World War I, was in charge of all the workers, black, Hispanic, and white. He had great intelligence and was one of Billy's father's best friends. Through Reese, Billy saw that skin color had nothing to do with character and skill. Yet Billy was still a child of the Depression-era American South. Even the landmark legislation of 1954, Brown vs. the Board of Education, eliminating segregation in public schools, was yet to pass. It wasn't until Billy went to Wheaton College in 1940 that he had fellow students of different colors. This was eye-opening to him. But God would bring many African American leaders into Billy's life, people of theological substance who helped him work through the issue of diversity in his own mind and heart.
As a result, Billy became an advocate for racial healing at a time when even many Christians, sadly, found this unthinkable. In 1952, the United Press quoted Billy in the Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper as saying, "There is no scriptural basis for segregation." However, in the same article, Billy says that while he holds that view, he still understands there are social customs that must sometimes be upheld in how public meetings (such as his campaigns and crusades) are held. So while his own view was changing, he was still influenced to some degree by the prevailing prejudice among whites and white institutions. This wouldn't last for long, however. By 1956, Billy was writing in Life and Ebony magazines that racism is a sin and that he deplored the separation of races in the church.[vi]
At the 1957 crusade in New York City, Graham was dedicated and determined to speak against racism. God used two important people to bring him to these settled convictions. The first was a minister from Cleveland, the Reverend Howard O. Jones. Graham invited him to New York to help him and his team understand why so few people of color were coming to the meetings in Madison Square Garden. Jones told Billy to visit the Bronx, Queens, the streets of Harlem, and Brooklyn to listen to the people. Jones showed great patience with Billy and his team while educating them on the injustice and miseries of racism.
Taking Reverend Jones's advice, they held rallies for people of color in Harlem and Brooklyn. Billy was learning. Then, that same year, Jones became an associate evangelist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. His influence on Graham and his team cannot be overemphasized. Most of them were from the South and therefore would need time and understanding to be able to grasp the clear teaching of Scripture on ethnicity apart from their cultural lenses. Billy' was, as one of his biographers says, "typically ahead of his own unit, but never at the head of the parade."[vii] Howard Olean Jones died in 2010.
The other person God would use to educate Billy on this journey was the famous Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Leighton Ford, who was heading up communications with churches in New York City in the summer of 1957, remembers that unlike invitations from many other cities, the invitation to come to New York had been offered by the Protestant council of pastors, which included many men of color. Invitation and connection with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Clarence B. Jones (King's lawyer and close personal advisor) probably came to Billy by way of these men. Leighton sent a telegram to Dr. King asking if he would be willing to be on the platform and pray an invocational prayer at the beginning of one of the Madison Square Garden events. King agreed, and on July 18, 1957, he and Billy were on a crusade dais together. Over time, a friendship blossomed between the men. Billy would also have Dr. King speak to his executive staff on retreat to educate them more on racial justice. And for his part, it seems that King learned from Billy how to better hold large rallies, and Billy's organizational structures and training were offered to him as well. At one point, the two men wondered if they should even travel together promoting the fullness of the kingdom of God: both changed hearts (the new birth) and changed societies where right replaces wrong. Billy writes:
Early on, Dr. King and I spoke about his method of using non-violent demonstrations to bring an end to racial segregation. He urged me to keep on doing what I was doing-preaching the gospel to integrated audiences and supporting his goals by example, and not to join him in the streets. "You stay in the stadiums, Billy," he said, "because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets. Besides that, you have a constituency that will listen to you, especially among white people, who may not listen so much to me. But if a leader gets too far ahead of his people, they will lose sight of him and not follow him any longer." I followed his advice.[viii]
It was also during the New York City crusade of 1957 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower called and asked Billy's advice regarding sending National Guard troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in order to enforce desegregation laws. Billy's answer was, "I think you've got to, Mr. President. You've got no other alternative. The discrimination must be stopped."[ix]
In 1960, Dr. King and Graham were again together, in Brazil for the Baptist World Alliance meetings. During that time, Billy arranged a special dinner for King to meet with US Southern Baptist leaders to try and bridge the chasm between blacks and whites in the American South. "Our friendly relationship with Mike [Dr. King had by this time asked Billy to call him Mike as his other friends did] made the point with my Baptist friends," Billy records in Just as I Am.[x] There were, no doubt, times when King wished Billy would be more pronounced and public regarding racial discrimination, and there were probably times when Graham wished King would tone down his rhetoric, going slower on social justice, and preach the new birth in Christ more. Yet the friendship between the men was genuine.
Toward the end of his autobiography, Billy writes of the day he heard Dr. King had died. He was in Australia in the spring of 1968 preaching crusades, but taking an afternoon off to play golf, when journalists ran up and informed him that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis. They asked for a comment. "I was almost in a state of shock," Billy writes. "Not only was I losing a friend through a vicious and senseless killing, but America was losing a social leader and a prophet, and I felt his death would be one of the greatest tragedies in our history. There on the golf course I had all the journalists and the others gathered around, and we bowed in prayer for Dr. King's family, for the United States, and for the healing of the racial divisions of our world. I immediately looked into canceling my schedule and returning for the funeral, but it was impossible because of the great distance."[xi] Billy devoted his life to proclaiming the Good News of the changed heart brought about by Jesus Christ in all who love and know him. His own heart, and that of his team, were changed in regard to justice, equality, and racial diversity by special men like Martin Luther King Jr.
In the years to come, Billy's team of associate evangelists traveling the globe to preach Jesus Christ would include Fernando Vangioni from Latin America; Howard O. Jones and Ralph Bell, African Americans; Akbar Abdul-Haqq from Pakistan; and Robert Cunville from India.[xii] The commitment to racial justice was so profound for them that Graham would for years refuse to accept invitations to do a crusade in South Africa because of apartheid. Finally, in 1973, he agreed, but only if the crusades were guaranteed to be integrated.[xiii]
In the United States, before Dr. King's death, the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed four precious little girls in September 1963 shocked the nation and perhaps as much as any event turned many hearts. Billy was asked to come to Birmingham the following Easter and conduct an integrated meeting calling for people to surrender their hearts to Christ and love one another. It was the largest integrated event in the history of Alabama to that date.[xiv] His friendship and respect for President Lyndon Johnson also helped Billy go public regarding his support of civil rights. He spoke out in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After "Bloody Sunday" in Selma in March 1965, the president asked him to go to Alabama and hold rallies to support peace and goodwill. He did. And when race riots hit Watts, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, later that year, he flew to California to tour the area with Dr. E. V. Hill, a respected clergyman and confidant of Dr. King, who soon became a member of Billy's board of directors. Billy writes in his autobiography, "I was sickened by the violence and the widespread destruction we saw on every hand. There were no easy answers, I knew, but Dr. Hill and I both agreed that any solution that omitted the need for spiritual renewal could bring only temporary relief."[xv] Like us all, Billy Graham was on a journey to learn, to grow, and to repent of his own cultural biases, and he did.
Chapter 7: Racial Justice, Peace Not War, Human Suffering
[i] Billy Graham, God's Ambassador: A Lifelong Mission of Giving Hope to the World, compiled by Russ Busby (New York: Time Life Books, 1999), 216.
[ii] Grant Wacker, America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 245.
[iii] Graham, God's Ambassador, 212.
[iv] Discussion with president of Belhaven Roger Parrott, 2007.
[v] Billy Graham, Just as I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 425-26.
[vi] Ibid., 124.
[vii] Wacker, America's Pastor, 122.
[viii] Ibid., 426.
[ix] Ibid., 201.
[x] Ibid., 360.
[xi] Ibid., 696.
[xii] John Pollock, Billy Graham: The Authorized Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 321.
[xiii] Graham, Just as I Am, 430-31.
[xiv] Wacker, America's Pastor, 128.
[xv] Graham, Just as I Am, 427.