Billy Graham's Record on Race Was Both Ahead and Of His Time

The evangelist's actions as a racial moderate were consistent with his theology of personal salvation.

Billy Graham, in June 1960.

Photographer: Ted West/Central Press/Getty Images

There’s a nice story about Billy Graham’s reaction when he arrived to preach at a revival meeting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1953. Upon reaching the site, he found ropes marking off a separate section for black congregants. He removed them. “Either these ropes stay down,” Graham told his hosts, “or you can go on and have the revival without me.”

The great evangelist, who died this week at the age of 99, fully deserves the accolades he has received from across the political spectrum. Yet mixed in with the praise of Graham has been a tone of reservation, because -- it is said -- the man who preached to over 200 million people in his career did not speak enough about race when his words would have made a difference. There is limited merit to this contention. The actual history is complicated, a tale of growth and retrenchment and further growth. Given the era in which Graham came of age, what he accomplished is admirable.

Let’s begin with the obvious: Graham grew up when he grew up. In college, he was influenced by “Up From the Ape” by the Harvard anthropologist Earnest Hooton. The book is not mainly about race -- it’s about evolution -- but the pages nevertheless abound in racial stereotypes. Yet Hooton is also quite clear that there is no basis for the conclusion that any race is more intelligent on average than any other. For the era, this was an enormous advance.

Graham’s ministry as a public phenomenon is usually dated from 1949, when he was preaching in Los Angeles in what amounted to a large canvas tent. Some 350,000 congregants of several races passed through its entrance. Whether or not William Randolph Hearst really gave the command “Puff Graham!” the Hearst newspapers were fascinated by this phenomenon, and the national magazines swiftly joined the coverage. Within a year or two, the news that Graham was coming to town with his crusade often meant that businesses and even schools would limit their hours or close down to allow people to attend.

Early in his ministry, Graham was careful to avoid talk of race. In 1951, he even stayed at the home of Strom Thurmond, at that time the segregationist governor of South Carolina. But by the early 1950s, the issue could hardly be avoided, and in a 1952 interview in Mississippi, Graham was forthright. “There is no scriptural basis for segregation,” he said. He added: “It touches my heart when I see white stand shoulder in shoulder with black at the cross.” But in the face of sharp public criticism, Graham softened his stance: “We follow the existing social customs in whatever part of the country in which we minister.” 1

Scant months later, however, Graham was calling on all Baptist colleges and universities to admit black students. By the following year, he was taking down those ropes at the crusade in Chattanooga. Soon after, in the teeth of Southern opposition, Graham’s organization adopted a rule that its audiences must not be segregated. This was no small step in a Southern world in which Jim Crow was a way of life. But it was also very much the step of what was known at the time as a racial moderate: trying to live a different model without trying to force social change. This form of moderation was also consistent with the theology behind Graham’s ministry, which emphasized personal salvation rather than activism in the world.

Yet the moderate line became difficult to hold. Another Southern evangelical preacher, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., was becoming well known for his fiery denunciation of segregation. White preachers were choosing up sides, and, in the South, most of them were lining up in favor of the status quo.

Recognizing that it was impossible to remain silent, Graham began calling segregation “sinful” -- a line reported by the black papers and ignored by the white. In 1957, Graham brought his crusade to New York for three weeks, an event so newsworthy that the New York Times reprinted in full a sermon Graham delivered at Madison Square Garden, even though it occupied nearly two pages. In that sermon, the evangelist condemned the view that “because a man walks different, because a man looks different, because a man has a different colored skin, he is looked down as inferior.” During his weeks in New York, he also spoke from the pulpits of black churches. Toward the end of the crusade, he invited King to share the platform and pray.

By this time Graham was being lauded in the black press for his comments about segregation. In 1958, he hired his first full-time black associate, the Reverend Harold O. Jones of Cleveland. 2  A year later, segregationists would circulate 40,000 pamphlets calling on residents of Little Rock, Arkansas, to boycott Graham’s crusade. Tens of thousands flocked to hear him anyway. Among them was a young Sunday schooler named William Jefferson Clinton.

By this time, King would be praising Graham for refusing “to preach to any audience that is segregated.” Graham’s public statements on segregation were increasingly forceful. But the Watts riots of 1965 disrupted the progressive growth of Graham’s views. He toured the black neighborhood of Los Angeles where the violence had been centered. The devastation depressed him. Despite his admiration for King, Graham began to argue that the racial problem would not be solved by taking to the streets.

Over the next few years, as further riots erupted, Graham increasingly preached the importance of law and order, even as those became code words during Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign for slowing the pace of racial change. Although it’s unlikely that Graham meant what Nixon meant, the two men became close -- a closeness that would continue as the Watergate scandal unfolded. 3

Yet Graham’s message was hardly on all fours with the administration’s policies. Preaching in Norfolk, Virginia, in the 1970s, Graham argued that in order for school desegregation to work, residential segregation would have to end. He argued further that the problem of poverty would not be solved as long as wealth was so unequally distributed. In 1973, Graham was again celebrated in the black press, after he let local authorities know that he would cancel his appearance in Durban, South Africa, unless laws requiring racial separation were suspended to allow him to preach to an integrated audience. The authorities blinked. 4  As the years went by, his preaching against racial intolerance grew sharper.

Where does this leave us on Graham and race? There’s no simple answer. His often heroic insistence on integrated audiences in the 1950s put him well ahead of his time; his uneasiness with making more than the rare public statement on segregation elsewhere made him very much a man of his time. With the benefit of hindsight, we might fairly criticize the great evangelist for taking too long to escape entirely the era in which he was raised. But precisely because of the era, what he did accomplish remains remarkable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. These and a few of the other quotations I use may be found here.

  2. In May 1966, Jones was at the center of a racial controversy. He was in London to help prepare for Graham’s forthcoming visit. After spending one night in what the papers called “a luxury flat,” Jones was evicted, because he was black. In protest, two white Graham aides staying in the same building also moved out.

  3. Many have criticized Graham for not abandoning Nixon. I don’t agree. Whether Graham is viewed as Nixon’s friend or as his spiritual adviser, to abandon another because he’s done terrible things is not the act of either.

  4. To be sure, there were other slips along the way. Graham’s closeness with Nixon cost him dearly in 2002, when newly released White House tapes revealed the evangelist making sharply derogatory comments about Jews. He apologized, and asked to be judged by his actions for interreligious harmony, but for many the pain still lingers. Similarly, in 1960, he was briefly part of a group organized to raise concerns about the idea that a Roman Catholic might occupy the Oval Office. Yet days before the inauguration, there he was playing golf with President-elect John F. Kennedy, who personally chauffeured Graham back and forth to the course.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at

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