Billy Graham often said, in his view, racism was the biggest social problem we face in the world today.
How prescient he was.
I can’t think of any other time in our nation’s recent history—other than the late 1960s—where we as a country have been so divided.
Burning buildings. Fighting in the streets. Protests and rancor. Seemingly division at every level.
It was a time of great passion on every side, not unlike today.
It was in times like these when Billy Graham shone the brightest.
The famed evangelist was a gifted peacemaker, not a trouble-maker. A bridge builder, not a bridge burner. He had the ability to cross the political aisle and work with national and foreign leaders to get resolution, and proved this time and time again.
He was a preacher who counseled presidents, popes, queens, Democrats, Republicans, mobsters, the world-famous, the infamous, and the common man alike. He even attended a Grateful Dead concert in an attempt to understand what was going on with the counter-culture of the day. And he pointedly invited leaders of all faiths and denominations to stand with him on the platform at his Crusades.
Graham’s civil rights record also speaks for itself. In a time of segregation, Billy refused to allow racial division at one of his 1953 Crusades, tearing down the ropes at an Alabama gathering and refusing to preach until they disappeared. He invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to pray at his 1957 Madison Square Garden Crusade, not an insignificant gesture in its day. He also counseled President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the stalemate over the school desegregation controversy in Little Rock, Arkansas, telling him the discrimination must be stopped and “Ike” must intervene.
President John F. Kennedy called on Graham to assist him with civil rights to help build the country’s racial harmony a few months before his tragic assassination. Their correspondence took place the day after Kennedy gave his historic televised address “Report to the American People on Civil Rights,” in which he denounced the threats of violence and obstruction on the University of Alabama campus following desegregation attempts by their governor, George Wallace.
“Racial or ethnic prejudice is a sin in the eyes of God, and no Christian should allow his or her heart to be filled with prejudice,” Graham was once quoted as saying.
There’s no denying where Billy Graham stood on racism. He was quite firm on the matter.
So what would he say or do to heal America in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the current trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd?
Graham had been trying to build bridges among races in our country for more than a half-century during similar times of heightened division. Today’s situation is really not that much different to what it was nearly 50 years ago.
This is, I believe, where Billy Graham showed true leadership and tolerance. He didn’t just talk about race and leadership in empty platitudes but wrote in his 1997 autobiography “Just as I Am” that he “expected the clergy to take the lead” on racial conciliation, not politicians, corporations, academics, or the media.
He also said, “Jesus was not a white man; He was not a black man. He came from that part of the world that touches Africa and Asia and Europe. Christianity is not a white man’s religion and don’t let anybody tell you that it’s white or black; He belongs to the whole world.”
Today, when institutions seem intent on dividing the nation by race, rhetoric, vitriol, and identity politics, Graham’s answer was simple: God’s message to us was to “learn to accept each other and love each other.”
That may sound simplistic to some, but it was what Graham truly believed.