In 1953 at his Chattanooga Crusade, Billy Graham personally and physically pulled down the ropes segregating his audience. He told two ushers, “either these ropes stay down or you can go on and have the revival without me.” The head usher resigned in protest, and the Chattanooga papers were silent on the matter. Throughout the following weeks, Graham downplayed the move, but the ropes never returned for that Crusade. Within three years, President Eisenhower would ask Graham to convince Southern clergy to soften their ecclesiastical segregationism. By 1957 Martin Luther King, Jr. was opening a July New York City meeting in prayer.
And conservative Protestantism has never been the same. For every overly genteel, incomplete, and sometimes even timid gesture Billy Graham made toward conservative Evangelical racial reconciliation, one small but loud group of stinkers would always retaliate. When Graham campaigned in Africa and (eventually) condemned Apartheid in 1960, he returned with a particularly pointed Easter message for his own Southern white brothers and sisters. On that Good Friday, he released the following statement through UPI:
The whole trend of Scriptural teaching is toward racial understanding. Many use the Scriptures that were applied to Israel. It is true that God called Israel to be unique among the nations and told them to separate themselves from the evil nations round about them. But the white race cannot possibly claim to be the chosen race nor can the white race take for themselves promises that were applied to ancient Israel. . . . Jim Crow must go. It is absolutely ridiculous to refuse food or a night’s lodging to a man on the basis of skin color. . . . Who is our neighbor? Jesus gave us the answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and yet the Samaritan showed who his neighbor was by helping a person of another race. . . . The message of Christ has led to many great social revolutions and upheavals in history.
To our twenty-first-century ears, his statement is mild, even perhaps too mild. To his Southern “brothers,” however, it was the Battle of Fort Sumter all over again.
This was originally published on May 24, 2011.