Billy Graham's Civil Rights Stance: Theological Principle And Careerist Caution

Billy Graham's Civil Rights Stance: Theological Principle And Careerist Caution

7:00am Feb 22, 2018
American evangelist Billy Graham speaks to over 100,000 Berliners at the Olympic Stadium in Germany, June 27, 1954. (KREUSCH/AP Photo)

During much of Billy Graham’s long and influential life, the nation’s best-known Christian evangelist largely kept his distance from volatile political and social issues of the day. One notable exception was his role in the civil rights movement. In the 1950s he desegregated his sermons, giving hope to activists that Graham’s voice of moderation would reach white audiences opposed to the protests of Martin Luther King Jr.

But in his book, "Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South," author Steven Miller chronicles why Graham’s critique of segregation never went as far as civil rights leaders wanted him to go. He spoke with WFDD’s David Ford.

Interview Highlights

What motivated Graham to integrate his sermons?

I would characterize his move to take a more vocal stance on racial issues as a product of his personal belief and theology, but also as something that he had to do to further his national and international stature. Graham was quite ambitious following his breakthrough crusade [stadium events where he preached to millions over the course of his career] in Los Angeles in 1949, and from there his career rocketed. By the mid-fifties he was thought of as one of the leading pastoral voices in the U.S., and certainly the most famous evangelist. And he was looking abroad as well in 1955 with a crusade in London.

How did Graham maintain close friendships with segregationist clergy and politicians while simultaneously promoting the New South?

From an early date, he learned how to wear multiple hats even while always taking pains to emphasize that he was first and foremost an evangelist. But certainly analyzing and writing about Graham is not unlike writing about a president. There are many demands put upon this person, and an impulse to get to know as many people as possible. So, you have someone who was on friendly terms with numerous segregationist politicians but also kept up at least a cordial relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., someone who came from a very fundamentalist background but developed relationships with Catholic leaders. So, I think he was always vulnerable to critique for being contradictory--not always connecting the dots in terms of his various constituencies--whether it’s a contradiction to preach the message of racial tolerance and to be on friendly terms with King while also not communicating that message to political leaders who could have done something about it.

What do you believe Graham’s true beliefs on issues of race and civil rights were during those tumultuous years?

It’s fair to characterize Graham as a racial moderate, as someone who knew that Jim Crow’s days were numbered yet who was not comfortable with the earlier timeline of the Civil Rights Movement activists would have had for Jim Crow’s demise. So, in that sense, when King wrote his famous letter from Birmingham jail criticizing white moderates for always saying that activists were asking for demands to be met too hastily, that we need more time to address these issues, in many ways he was writing about someone like Graham who had in fact urged King to, 'put the brakes on a little bit,' with the Birmingham demonstrations in 1963. Then, once civil rights legislation was passed, he was fine with it and was certainly willing to support it but didn’t take any risks before that moment.

Author Steven P. Miller is a Professor of History at Webster University

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