Birmingham, Ala. – Pastor Billy Graham was single-minded as he preached about God and prefixed sermon points with the phrase "The Bible says …". Nevertheless, he had a complicated role in racial relations, especially when he faced segregation in his homeland.
In Alabama for one of his evangelistic crusades in 1
But Graham also drew informers from racial segregators because he spoke to racially mixed crowds and allowed blacks and whites to mingle during the brand altar that ended every ministry. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an ally and King publicly wrote to Graham that he helped the cause of civil rights.
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As a moderate white man who spoke with a southern voice, Graham facilitated the transition of the region from the legalized Separation, said Steven P. Miller, a scholar who wrote about Graham. Graham had a "huge base" of white Bible Belt support, Miller said, and these people listened to him.
"He could reach this audience as a native Southerner, but also because he spoke a familiar evangelical language – and because he was obviously not an activist," said Miller, author of the book "Billy Graham and the Rise of Republicans South."
"Ultimately, Graham has shown what we could now call a colorblind gospel," Miller said via email. "In that sense, he offered some white Southerners a familiar Christian way to withdraw from Jim Crow."
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A current civil rights activist from Graham's native North Carolina, the Rev. William J. Barber II Graham described the meeting with King and agreed to challenge secrecy, an act that Graham pursued by preaching reconciliation and peace rather than marching.
"Billy Graham inherited a belief in the American South, who had adapted to white supremacy, but he showed his willingness to change and turn to the truth," Barber said in a Facebook post after Graham's death. "He helped demolish walls of segregation, not build."
Nevertheless, Graham regretted. In an interview with The Associated Press in 2005, when he held his last crusade, Graham said he wished he had fought more for civil rights. In particular, Graham complained that in 1965 he did not meet with King and other pastors on election marches in Selma, Alabama.
"I think I made a mistake when I did not go to Selma," Graham said. "I would like to do more."
Graham also apologized for making anti-Semitic remarks made on the White House tape system installed by President Richard Nixon, which relied on Graham for both spiritual needs and political cover. The relationship between the two men has helped transform the South into solid republican territory as it is today, Miller argues in his book.
Born in 1918 at the family farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, Graham grew up in a strictly racial south. In an act that now sounds banal but was dangerous at the time, in the early 1950s he demanded the removal of ropes that separated black and white spectators on a crusade in the south.
Graham was an internationally known preacher who traveled around the world in 1955, when King first attracted attention through a bus boycott against racial segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. Graham hugged King's work, and the two met in 1957 during a Graham Crusade in New York's Madison Square Garden. Graham was sentenced to imprisonment after King was arrested during demonstrations in 1962 in Albany, Georgia.
After the racist violence of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma in 1965, and partly at the suggestion of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Graham visited Alabama and spoke to racially mixed crowds. During this journey, he received the message in which he spoke wistfully of his confederation roots and God's ability to heal.
While Graham was not marching with King in Selma, the Atlanta-based King Center for Nonviolent Social Change writes Graham an early, noncommittal attitude toward the race following the Supreme Court ruling of 1954 to ban segregation in public schools.
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Barber said Graham had also shunned the religious right wing movement that many evangelical Southerners are on their way to increasing their political power hugged after the Nixon years.
"His life was about following Jesus, and he knew that this was an ongoing commitment to be changed by love," said Barber.