Billy Graham, known widely as “America’s Pastor,” was connected to a number of presidents and took his popular “crusades” from small events in towns across the country to television sets around the world. Graham, who passed Wednesday, had a close, if complicated, connection to the civil rights movement even as he shifted away from those positions in later years.
William Franklin Graham Jr. was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in November 7, 1918. After studying at the Florida Bible Institute, Graham was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1939, continuing his studies at Illinois’ Wheaton College. Graham took his ministry to the public in the late ’40’s, and founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis in 1950.
Graham supported integration during the rise of the Montgomery bus boycotts. In 1957, he aligned himself with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and began hosting crusade events in New York with a focus on racial integration. That same year, Graham wrote an article for EBONY magazine decrying bigotry and racism and how scripture can help address the divide.
Graham’s support of King and the movement continued into the ’60’s, with Graham hosting crusade events in cities besieged with racial tensions. Eventually, Graham did pivot from the liberal politics of King and other leaders of the movement, criticizing their desire to change policy and not focus on changing the minds of their detractors.
Graham seemingly believed in racial equality but decried the acts of civil disobedience and the defiance of youth leaders looking to reform the world in a more harmonious image. To Graham, this was against his faith and perhaps disturbed his largely white, conservative base of supporters. Today, evangelicals make up a powerful segment of the voting bloc that has influenced the political landscape into a moral tug-of-war between liberals and conservatives.
Critics of Graham believe the influential leader’s heart was in the right place but leaving politics behind created a strong divide between ideologies that is playing out in great detail today.
Graham was 99. His wife, Ruth, whom he married 1943, passed in 2007. They had five children and 19 grandchildren, along with numerous great-grandchildren.
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