Moving Beyond Graham’s Legacy: Raising the Bar on Evangelical Participation in Civil Rights
The late Billy Graham said in an Associated Press interview in 2005 that he wished he had done more for Civil Rights. He especially regretted not partnering with Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma,” he said.
Since Graham died earlier this year at the age of 99, a gush of commentary regarding the evangelist’s legacy has poured forth. His legacy around civil rights has come under a microscope, and some writers reflected fondly on Graham’s civil rights efforts while others unabashedly criticized his lukewarm engagement.
Supporters of Graham’s moderate stance highlight his actions on one evening in 1953 when he personally removed the ropes separating white and black attendees at one of his crusades. Others note that Martin Luther King, Jr. counted Graham as a friend and King even delivered the opening invocation at one of Graham’s rallies in 1957.
Yet, critics of Graham’s record on civil rights note that while he seemed willing to engage with African-American brothers and sisters, his individualistic approach to the Gospel, Scripture, and salvation put him at theological odds with King and colleagues. Moreover, his prominent ministry shaped U.S. evangelical culture into one that is prone to looking at personal sin while failing to consider how society’s sins are upheld by unjust structures.
Within days of the publication of King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Graham told reporters that the Baptist minister should ‘put the brakes on a little bit.’ He criticized civil rights activists for focusing on changing laws rather than hearts,” explained historian, Matthew Sutton, in an article on Graham.
Graham’s Impact Today
White evangelicals still cling to Graham’s emphasis on preaching salvation rather than addressing so-called “social issues” like racism. In this popular view, Christian leaders shy away from speaking to and supporting specific policy measures and institutional reforms. Instead, they concentrate on gaining converts to the faith.
In response to the trope about fighting racism merely through converting individuals to Christianity, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”
Yet, ”changed laws do not change hearts” is a persistent sentiment in today’s evangelical culture and many current race-relation efforts reflect this effort. Christians who fall in line with Billy Graham’s Christianity exhibit no shortage of goodwill when it comes to race relations.
From commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to statements condemning racism and apathy within their ranks, white evangelicals often demonstrate a desire for improved relationships between black and white people in America. But today as in Graham’s day, interracial friendships and pronouncements denouncing racism are necessary but cannot happen in isolation from social action. Moreover, there is no need to choose between preaching against an individual’s sins (such as racism) or addressing societal sins. We must have a robust theological imagination that creates space for both to happen in tandem.
Moving Beyond Graham’s Legacy
We can account for the importance of Graham’s legacy in Christianity and affirm the sincerity of his belief in racial equality while drawing attention to deficiencies of his theology. Graham’s version of evangelicalism failed to address the wealth gap, under-education, over-policing, and many other injustices. We must decide if we will overlook that error or learn from it. Will we limit the good news of the Gospel by reducing it to an individual’s salvation? Or will we also consider the Bible’s power to transform societies?
Today, evangelicals still hesitate to march, perform acts of civil disobedience, and face imprisonment along with black activists for the sake of justice. Friendly feelings toward people of a different race and private support of racial equality are too low a standard. While the options for advocacy are limitless, history shows us that addressing such issues as unemployment, police brutality, and voting rights are helpful starting points for evangelicals who want to raise the bar on evangelical participation in civil rights.
True allyship with black Americans must account for the insidious nature of sin and its power to infest economics, politics, and society. Therefore, it must promote economic, political, and social justice. This is where Graham fell short.
The Importance of Justice
Toward the end of his life, King became increasingly focused on economic justice, but as early as 1963, he recognized its importance. The March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom had a list of ten demands. One of them was the call for “A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers – Negro and white – on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”
King’s concerns about the financial well-being of black people are still salient today. According to the latest data, more than 7 percent of “African Americans were unemployed in 2017, compared with 6.7 percent in 1968 — still roughly twice the white unemployment rate.” If Christians in the tradition of Billy Graham want to do better on civil rights then their efforts must include job creation for the poor and other forms of economic relief.
Police brutality is another reality in which evangelicals should be vocal and public supporters of reform. The issue of violence and murder perpetrated by those charged to “serve and protect” is a perennial one. The infamous Detroit uprising of 1967 occurred when police raided a party celebrating the returning of two black servicemen from the Vietnam War. Local residents grew frustrated when the police roughed up the patrons and arrested all of them. As rumors of further brutality swirled, the community erupted in violence. By the time the streets cleared, 43 people had been killed and 33 of them were black. Similar instances of police brutality were at the heart of the uprisings in Los Angeles in 1992 and the Ferguson protests in 2015.
Evangelical emphasis on “law and order”—often used as a euphemism for harsh policing of poor and minority communities—has meant that support for anti-police brutality organizations like Black Lives Matter has been tepid or non-existent. If white evangelicals today want to go further than Graham, then they must push for significant changes in policing as well as sentencing and prison reform.
Some of the Civil Rights Movement’s most important moments were part of the attempt to secure voting rights for black citizens. The March on Selma, which Graham wished he had participated in, had black voting rights as its goal. Today, voting rights are still limited for black communities. Parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been struck down and gerrymandering remains a critical issue in many states and cities. Evangelicals should be active supporters of changes to voting laws and redistricting that ensures maximum participation from the poor and racial minorities.
Looking Beyond the Church
Billy Graham’s lackluster record on civil rights teaches that support for black equality is not just about changing attitudes but about encouraging activism. Evangelical promotion of racial equality must spill out beyond the church walls and conference panels and into city halls, courtrooms, and streets.
Debating the impact and legacy of Billy Graham, especially in terms of race relations, will probably occupy commentators and scholars for decades. But Graham’s own words offer a challenge to present-day Christians, especially the evangelicals whom Graham represents.
In the same breath that he lamented not marching to Selma, Graham concluded his thoughts by saying, “I would like to have done more.”
Evangelicals today have the opportunity to do more for racial justice and move beyond the civil rights legacy of Billy Graham.