As Americans remember and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) this week, it is important to recall that in his civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, one of the first prominent white evangelical preachers who supported him in that struggle was Pastor Billy Graham.
Dr. King “was a social leader and a prophet,” said Pastor Graham in his autobiography, Just As I Am, and his death was “one of the greatest tragedies” in U.S. history.
The two men met during King’s bus boycott in 1955, which Graham supported and, in the summer of 1957, Rev. King accepted an invitation to offer a prayer at a Billy Graham rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
At that rally, King prayed, “We thank thee this evening for the marvelous things which have been done in this city through the dynamic preaching of this great evangelist [Graham]. We ask thee O’ God to continue blessing him. Give him continued power and authority. “
“As we listen to him tonight,” prayed King, “grant that our hearts and spirits will be open to the Divine impulse. All of these things we ask in the name of Him who taught us to pray, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.”
Back in 1953 at a Christian revival in Jackson, Mississippi, ushers had set up ropes separating the white people from the black people. Rev. Graham asked that the ropes be taken down, and when the usher refused, Graham took the ropes down himself and told all the people to sit where they wanted.
When Billy Graham held the 16-week-long rally at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1957, he was concerned that there were very few blacks attending. He contacted Howard Jones, a black evangelist, who advised him to go preach at the churches in New York City where many black people worshipped.
Graham did so, preaching to 8,000 people in Harlem and 10,000 in Brooklyn. In turn, more and more black New Yorkers started attending the rally at Madison Square Garden, where Dr. King went and offered the prayer on July 18, 1957.
Rev. Graham and Dr. King became close friends, to the point that MLK told Graham to call him “Mike,” a name he used only with his closest associates. On occasion, over the years, Bill Graham paid the bail and fines that King received during his civil rights action.
In a new DVD, Taking Down the Ropes of Desegregation: Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Graham, and the Civil Rights Movement, Pastor Graham recounts, “Martin Luther King suggested to me that I stay in the stadiums in the South and hold integrated meetings because he was probably going to take to the streets. “
“He said, ‘I’m probably going to stay in the streets and I might get killed in the streets, but I don’t think you ought to,’” recalled Graham, “because, he said, ‘you will be able to do things I can’t do and I will be able to do some things that you can’t do but we’re after the same objective.”
“There is no scriptural basis for segregation,” said Rev. Graham. “The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross."
Billy Graham, 96, lives at his family home in Montreat, N.C. Although he has Parkinson's disease, he reportedly is in fairly good health, according to his son, Rev. Franklin Graham. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by escaped convict James Earl Ray in 1968; King is buried in Atlanta, Ga.
(The first abridged video report in this blog is from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and the second video report is from CBN News, which was posted on YouTube.)