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Billy Graham helped give white evangelicals a pass on civil rights — scholars

Evangelist Billy Graham drinks an ice cream soda with a group of teenagers after discussing the problem of juvenile crime with a group of youngsters at a New York City news conference on Aug. 8, 1957. At the Hotel New Yorker, Graham proposed that passages from the Bible be read "in every classroom in New York City" as a way of combating teenage crime. (AP Photo/Anthony Camerano)

(RNS) — During the civil rights movement, Billy Graham said he was a preacher, not a prophet. And while he is remembered for speaking out against racism and segregation during his later revivals, some scholars argue that he gave white evangelicals a safe alternative to civil rights engagement.


RELATED: Billy Graham, America’s pre-eminent evangelist, dies at 99


The Rev. William E. Pannell of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said Graham’s message of personal salvation helped give African-Americans the perception that whatever he “was talking about, whatever his value or legacy may be, it was outside of the best interests or perceived interests of the black community.”

Randal Jelks, African-American studies professor at the University of Kansas, said that although the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. prayed at Graham’s 1957 New York City crusade, the evangelist was “very much out of touch” with the struggles of people on the margins while connected to the powers that be.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and evangelist Billy Graham

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and evangelist Billy Graham in 1962. Photo courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

“Billy Graham was seeking fame and respectability and to make white evangelicals respectable,” said Jelks. He said Graham’s connections with the Republican Party would trouble King “and a whole generation of black people, because these are the very parties that were led by the Reagans and the Goldwaters, who were undermining the claims of civil rights.”

Ohio State University sociology professor Korie Edwards described Graham’s failures on civil rights as a “lost opportunity.” She said that while people, regardless of racial and ethnic background, appreciated his television ministry, he didn’t use his influence with American presidents to further social justice.

“I wouldn’t say that that would be a major part of his legacy,” she said.

But Graham was “greatly impacted” by what he saw when he took a helicopter tour of Los Angeles after the 1965 Watts riots, recalled the Rev. Ralph Bell, an early African-American evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who accompanied him on the ride.

“I don’t think he fully realized the problems that the black community was having at that time and the hostility and bitterness that was generated years before … the utter devastation and the pain. I think that (helicopter tour) gave him a good perspective on some of the problems that the nation was having,” he said.

Bell saw “spiritual growth” in Graham regarding civil rights, he said, and that growth was evident in his stipulation that crusades in Birmingham, Ala., and elsewhere in the 1960s South be integrated.

“Mr. Graham was a good man, a man of integrity, and didn’t have a bit of prejudice in him. But I think when he came face-to-face with the national impact of the race relations in this country, it sharpened his perspective and his determination to do whatever he could to make an impact on the civil rights movement and on race relations as a whole,” Bell added.

“I think later on, as he grew and matured and came to a deep understanding of the Scriptures, that he had a strong awareness that we’re all created equal in God’s sight,” he said.

In 1953, more than a year before the Supreme Court decision banning racial discrimination, Billy Graham holds a crusade without segregated seating areas in Chattanooga, Tenn. “Jesus was a man,” Graham later said. “He was not a white man. He was not a black man. … Christianity is not a white man’s religion.” Photo courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

In 2012, Graham appeared to take a political turn to the right, when he urged Americans to vote for biblical values and came out in support of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in North Carolina.

At the time, Steve Knight, a former employee of the BGEA communications division, questioned whether the statements were really Graham’s, or those of his politically outspoken son Franklin Graham.

Knight, now an organizer at Repairers of the Breach, said Graham had worked closely with ghostwriters for many years.

And what BGEA was publishing under Graham’s name in 2012 was “religious right language coming out of the mouth of Billy Graham and Billy Graham wasn’t a part of that religious right,” he said.

But even on civil rights, Pannell said in an interview at the time, Graham “gave leadership to an emerging evangelicalism which has always been really lily white, and with the theme of revivalism … tied to a kind of nationalism.”

He described Graham-led revivalism as revivalism not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the nation, which is going “down the drain” unless it repents.

“It’s not until the civil rights movement really, when the nation itself began to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Democracy really hasn’t happened and can’t happen if we’ve got a significant number of our people who can’t even vote.’ … But that voice didn’t come from evangelicalism,” said Pannell.

Billy Graham begins his public ministry with the Youth for Christ organization in 1945. Photo courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

One positive aspect of Graham’s legacy that Pannell said has been overlooked is his urban ministry legacy and his role in “kicking off” the Youth for Christ ministry, where Graham was the first full-time evangelist. Graham then took over a Youth for Christ radio show in Chicago, preached at the organization’s first youth rally in the city and became its first vice president. Pannell said Graham doesn’t often get significant credit for building what he described as “a very important evangelical ministry to the cities.”

Asked what Graham’s ultimate legacy will be, Bell said that “because of his integrity and his strong preaching of the gospel, wherever he was, whether he was in the presence of the president or whether he was with ordinary native people in their huts, he was the same.”

“He was the same person publicly as he was privately, and he was genuine, and because of that I think people trusted him on every level of society and he became like the chaplain to the nation,” Bell added.

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Christine A. Scheller

27 Comments

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  • Graham was no better or worse than most white Southern Baptist preachers of his time period. He was like anyone a product of his upbringing.

    I did get a giggle out of the top photo…Graham looks like he just marveling: “Wow…these black folk also drink ice cream soda…well slap my behind and call me nellie!”

  • Revisionism aside, the younger Billy Graham, like most Evangelicals of his generation, probably didn’t connect the dots between the Gospel and social justice. The fact that he later came to recognize that relationship is to his credit, but I have a hard time faulting him for something that, early on, he likely didn’t think about, let alone have any convictions over.

  • If there was “‘spiritual growth’ in Graham regarding civil rights”, then how come that same guy “supported police repression of Vietnam war protesters and civil rights marchers … [and] opposed Martin Luther King’s tactic of civil disobedience”?!

    (Source: Cecil Bothwell, “Billy Graham: An Old Soldier Fades Away”, Consortium News, February 21, 2018.)

  • Consider this:

    “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.”
    — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    “Billy Graham inherited a faith in the American South that had accommodated itself to white supremacy, but he demonstrated a willingness to change and turn toward the truth. He helped to tear down walls of segregation, not build them up.”
    — Rev. William J. Barber II, liberal anti-Trump activist and “Poor People’s Campaign” leader

    “Ultimately, what Graham put forth was what we might now call a colorblind gospel. In this sense, he provided a familiarly Christian path for some white Southerners to back away from Jim Crow.” — Steven P. Miller, scholar and author

  • Maybe Bill Graham was ahead of his time and recognized that much of what is called today “social justice” is merely a sugar coating for the idea that the individual is not accountable to anyone else and anything goes. Maybe he didn’t want to support the erosion of morality and ethics.

  • Maybe Hyperconservative religious are way behind their time becuase they refuse to recognize that much of what is called today “social justice” is merely the idea that the society is accountable for how it treats its members. In fact, it is quite the opposite of the idea that anything goes.

    Maybe the erosion of morality and ethics is the assumption that might makes right, facts don’t matter, prejudices do matter, and no amount of saying “god says it. I believe it. That settles it.” makes immoral actions of society moral.

  • Billy Graham was an intellectual coward

    When Billy was a brand new evangelist working with Charles Templeton, they both began taking off. Charles said to Billy at one point, we need to go to Princeton and study this stuff before we can keep preaching it. Billy refused, saying he believes everything in the Bible. Charles went on to further studies and soon left the faith.

    Billy’s greatest legacy was dumbing the religion down.

  • I always had mixed feelings about Graham. He surely was fire and brimstone in early videos I have seen from him. He was/is not a deep intellectual. I do think there was a basic decency, which is often missing from TV preachers, and am glad he did have the ability to change. He did also admit that he was wrong believing Nixon to be better than he was. You can see him mellow and get kinder as he got older, but at times I sense some arrogance about being right, to the exclusion of discussing anything that might challenge him. Interestingly, I watched an interview where Billy Graham’s wife Ruth describes Franklin Graham as being attracted to types that were bigger and tougher, when he was aged 3 and a half. It seems Franklin’s desire to fight was there from the beginning, unfortunately.

  • If a person from that society isn’t responsible then its not justice but revenge. Its the fatal flaw of social justice and the reason why it won’t be effective. That along with its incessant need to divide people based on perceived oppressor/oppressed status.

  • By what authority other than your own personal likes and dislikes do you judge actions of society “immoral”.

  • Are you sure you and bobby aren’t the same person? You seem to be asking exactly the same questions.
    BTW, you like your particular version of Christian morality, and dislike other versions. so how are you different than me, except on your own authority?

  • I would compare and contrast the two versions of morality, but to this point all you have provided are bits and fragments of what you like and don’t like.

    You could begin with answering this question, but I am not holding my breath.

  • I believe, bennie, you’re being asked to explain the words “moral” and “immoral” in:

    “Maybe the erosion of morality and ethics is the assumption that might makes right, facts don’t matter, prejudices do matter, and no amount of saying ‘god says it. I believe it. That settles it.’ makes immoral actions of society moral.”

    Beyond signifying what you favor and/or like, and what you disfavor and/or dislike, they really don’t have any deeper meanings, do they?

  • No more meaning than “I believe god said it. I believe I understand it. I believe that settles it.”

  • PS. Still no answer to the simple question of whether you and Jose are different people. I’m beginning to think I am right.

  • I believe you.

    It is simply your personal unsupported opinion.

    This nonsense about “minority rights”, “moral”, “immoral”, and so on is simply completely unsupported rhetoric designed to get you what you want personally without regard to ANY intrinsic moral evaluation. It is designed to sucker the gullible into thinking that your spiel is somehow related to actual moral issues such as racial equality – which, of course, is logical, legal, and moral nonsense.

    The atheists who called themselves “communists” used exactly the same tactics.

  • Speaking of evasions, Bobby Joe….

    I still have yet to hear you or Joe Bob deny you are the same person. Seems like you are evading an answer.

    But evasion isn’t the word I would use. You have both declared repeatedly that atheists have no morals, that atheist morals are arbitrary and can change with the wind. You reduce the morals of a lifetime of other people as merely their preferences, as opposed to your alleged morals, which you prefer to get out of an ancient book which youprefer to other ancient books, as so many bible believing people clearly claim, but usually,fall short on. You insist that morals cannot exist without religion, when that clearly isn’t even remotely true. You blame atheism for the woes of the world, ignoring the role that religion plays in the woes of the world. You demand to know where I get my morals and what they are, as if I would be so silly as to get them from reading ONE ancient book, as opposed to what faith, sociology, and psychology tell us— not to mention common sense and observation. As to what they are? You were told, and you instantly derided that as my “preference”.

    And did I mention that you are both pretty much jerks, assuming there is a “both” on this, insisting that you are moral and superior and the smartest guys in the room?

    In short, you neither of you seem to know much about morals at all. He only thing you “know” is just how much better and more moral you are than everyone else. So why would I discuss morals with you?

    It would be like discussing epidemiology with JP, the nature of bigotry with floydleee, the validity and variety of religious experience with sandimonious, or ways of knowing god that are not sola Scriptorium with Shawnie.

    Sorry, boys or boy. I have other things to do today.

  • I have not declared once, Bennie and no Jets, let alone repeatedly, that atheists have no morals.

    Since you provide no basis for morality other than what you happen to like, or dislike, it would appear that your morals are arbitrary and can change with your tastes. The most likely morality to triumph in a formally atheist society, then, would seem to be “might makes right”, and that appears to be what in fact happens. If that is not true, you have been singularly silent in letting anyone know why.

    Natural law, for one example, is not “out of an ancient book”, but it does provide a framework for things like minority rights, one of your favorite slogans, or the Nuremberg Trials. To this point if you can do that out of the raw material of atheism, you have hidden the recipe.

    I have not insisted that morals cannot exist without religion, I’ve simply asked you to explain and defend your “moral” system. You apparently cannot.

    You blame religion for the woes of the world, ignoring the role that religion played in lifting us out of the pagan world where literally anything went. Religion appears to be terrible, except in comparison to no religion or paganism.

    I ask, not demand, for any explanation of your morals and I get what I am responding to – an obfuscating tapdance of equivocations, excuses, and so on.

    No one has been “told”. When an issue comes up, you give it either a moral thumbs up, or an immoral thumbs down, and it ends there. So, for example, if you had a swell basis for “moral” and “immoral” as used here:

    “Maybe the erosion of morality and ethics is the assumption that might makes right, facts don’t matter, prejudices do matter, and no amount of saying ‘god says it. I believe it. That settles it.’ makes immoral actions of society moral.”

    such that it would put the religionists to shame and sideline Jefferson’s “Creator with certain unalienable Rights” to the side show, you’d be chafing at the bit to present it.

    In short, if you know much about morals at all, you’ve done a superb job of disguising it.

    Why would you discuss morals with anyone except in a context like JoeMyGod where the rabblement hoot, and clap their chapped hands, and throw up their sweaty night-caps at jibes at the “religionists” and their morality? Elsewhere people are going to ask what in the world you are talking about and why.

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