Remembering Billy Graham’s Crusade against Racism

ReadTheSpirit Editor

As a journalist, specializing in religion and diversity for more than 40 years, I’ve reported my share of stories about the Graham family. Since his death at age 99 on February 21, I have mourned Billy’s passing. As I read the coverage of his life by my colleagues nationwide, I was struck by one thought: Billy’s legacy would look a brighter if his son Franklin Graham hadn’t doubled-down on the family’s earliest bigotry. As a journalist steeped in this history, I am convinced that Billy’s lifelong awakening to God’s calling could have led him eventually to even more dramatic acts of inclusion. Now, instead, Billy’s life is tarred by the tragic expressions of contempt for others that continue to flow from Franklin.

In this past week, a wonderfully evocative reflection on Billy’s life by Jonathan Merritt in the New York Times touches on this long-awakening process in Billy’s life. The flip side, also in the Times, is this assault on what the Graham family represents today by David Hollinger. I find myself agreeing with arguments in both pieces—one fondly recalling Billy, the other a scathing indictment of where Billy allowed Franklin to carry his legacy. (The best Times piece, by the way, was Laurie Goodstein’s official Times obituary.)

So, what can ReadTheSpirit add to the broad river of coverage that poured from the Times this week? We can add a specific salute to one chapter of Billy’s life when he got it right and embraced integration. Hollinger dismisses this daring action as mere showboating—in light of how the Graham family later struck a hard line against other forms of inclusion. But Hollinger isn’t being fair to the light that seems to have erupted in Billy’s consciousness in the 1950s. What he did in that era truly was courageous.

How courageous? As the Religion Writer for The Detroit Free Press for several decades, I saw first hand the archival materials from the civil war in the 1950s for the soul of the powerful evangelical communities in Detroit. At that time, the city was an internationally famous industrial hub, teeming with families who had come to its factories from the American South and from nations around the world.

By the 1950s, Detroit already had been a virulent hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activism for several decades—and many of the most loathsome firebrands in that movement were associated with large white Baptist churches. Meanwhile, a growing number of large black Baptist churches were emerging across the city. At the moment when Billy decided to “take down the ropes of segregation,” as his organization now describes that chapter in his history, Detroit’s deep racial divide was mirrored in the correspondence that was flooding Billy’s office. Powerful white preachers from Detroit were pushing him in one direction. Detroit’s black pastors were pushing back. Some of those letters remain in the archives.

Billy’s courageous decision to do the right thing and side with inclusion came in the midst of what he clearly understood was a civil war on the verge of open violence. In the face of that threat, Billy first took down the ropes and later welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to appear with him in New York City.

Today, as we remember Billy, we need not dwell on where Franklin is taking that legacy, except to suggest that Franklin should take to heart this father’s preaching (in this first video clip, below):

“There is no excuse ever for hatred.
There is no excuse ever for bigotry,
intolerance and prejudice.
We are to love as God loves us.”

To mark Billy’s passing, ReadTheSpirit is featuring four short videos about Billy’s courage.







Care to read more?

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  1. This historical perspective is important, for in the context of the times Rev Graham was creating ripples
    and we are entering the 50th anniversary of many 1968 events. Even my Neiburminded Southern Methodist father had us watch the televised “crusade” evangel word of Graham. Rev. Graham also admitted regret post Nixon, never embraced the moral majority, and had a manner of presence to befriend our Presidents on a human level. He meet leaders where they were and his offering of his own “just as I am” was a balance in their stress-filled worlds. His legacy is indeed very tarnished by the mantel that has been overtaken by Franklin, his son. I had to cease Samaritan Purse participation as my conscience could not reconcile with his bigtory and fear inducing jargon. His hatred is not an echo neither his heavenly or earthly father. I still aspire that upon reflection of Rev Billy Graham’s words and deeds that Franklin,shall choose to “repent.” I first noted on 2.21 via a blog entry that it was the 53rd anniversary of the death of Malcom X. Then within minutes I heard of Rev Billy Graham. How mysterious is that? These two men, two religions, who through their separate civil rights and religious journeys evolved to embrace an ever more inclusive world mindset. Furthermore, they share their death dates with the students who marched on Tallahassee, demanding a moral compass for our nation.