The Common Good
January-February 1998

An Unrealized Dream

by Chris Rice | January-February 1998

Billy Graham and Martin Luther King: the road not traveled.

One of the most instructive but little-known stories in the search for racial healing is the intriguing relationship between two of the most significant American Christians of the 20th century. Two years after the Montgomery bus boycott began, Billy Graham invited Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver a prayer at his 1957 crusade in New York City. It was an amazing step for a white Southern preacher with a growing national reputation who already was being criticized for taking racial integration too far.

The two held three private strategy meetings in the months afterward. King began to look at Graham's crusades as a model for his mass meetings and dreamed about joint crusades that would convert racially mixed audiences first in the North and ultimately in the Deep South.

Imagine the power of a King-Graham alliance: Two southerners—one America's great apostle of justice, the other, our great apostle of evangelism, together in the pulpit. Graham cutting the air with a challenge, calling for the heart change, "You must be born again!"; King's voice resounding, calling for the proof: the "descendants of former slaves and slave-holders sitting at the table of fellowship together."

But King and Graham broke ranks over a tension that continues to plague our attempts at becoming one body. In his history of the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch writes:

Dreams [of partnership] floundered...on the question of emphasis between politics and pure religion. [King's friends] found Graham increasingly unwilling to talk about the worldly aspects of the race issue....Furthermore, racial polarization was making it more difficult for Graham to hold interracial meetings at all. Like countless Southern moderates, he was being forced to choose, and within a year King would be writing to ‘Brother Graham' pleading with him not to allow segregationist politicians on the platform of the San Antonio crusade. The two preachers tacitly agreed to confine their cooperation to privacy.

Graham and his evangelicals desperately needed King. When a movement such as Promise Keepers still gets only a sprinkling of black participation (despite intense efforts), it's clear that white evangelicals whose predecessors stood on the sidelines of the civil rights movement are still digging out of a deep hole to earn the trust of the black church.

BILLY GRAHAM SEEMS to have regrets. When asked, "What is the most serious issue facing the church?" he has answered, "Racial reconciliation." He has also expressed his regret for not preaching more about "the kingdom of God," which he defined as "justice for all."

King needed Graham just as much. Many are convinced that King had serious moral failures in his personal life. While this does not diminish his contributions—few American Christians have ever endured as much torment and persecution for the sake of the gospel—King's moral blindspot may expose what became a serious weakness in the civil rights revolution itself. What began as a spiritual movement in the church became primarily a political assault that failed to prepare a freed people for post-desegregation moral challenges.

Especially overlooked were those African Americans who remain in America's inner cities. Since the 1960s—despite courageous attempts by many grassroots leaders—the moral high ground of the civil rights movement has slowly eroded through failure to address these challenges adequately. Into this vacuum stepped Louis Farrakhan, quoting Christian scripture more than the Quran, sounding the religious theme of "atonement," and calling for foundations of marriage, responsible fatherhood, and personal responsibility.

King's focus would have had to change—from battling racial enemies without to also facing moral enemies within. To their partnership Billy Graham would have brought a powerful emphasis on personal transformation and renewal. Graham would have been transformed as well, forced to face the realization early on that social sins are every bit as much "moral" issues as are personal ones.

In my own city of Jackson, Mississippi, two interracial, church-based movements have sprung up, giving powerful leadership to racial reconciliation. One, Mission Mississippi, focuses primarily on prayer, relationships, and family issues. The other, the Amos Network, focuses on organizing to address urban problems. Both are desperately needed. But like most other cities I visit, the self-proclaimed "conservatives" and "liberals" often seem embarrassed even to be discovered in the same room together, much less become partners.

Nationally, groups like Promise Keepers and the Call to Renewal have just begun to talk to one another. One focuses on reconciliation through relationships; the other on justice attacking structural racism. One emphasizes social renewal based in family and marriage; the other on social renewal based in community development, a new civic culture, and love for the poor.

King and Graham exemplify probably the greatest Christian partnership that never happened: two ministers of the gospel, representing two streams that truly need each other but have never combined in a massive, interracial movement. An alliance between these two streams would have turned the American church upside-down.

It still could. Do we dare unsettle our constituencies and comfort zones to begin an honest conversation to find common ground?

Chris Rice was director of Reconcilers Fellowship in Jackson, Mississippi, when this article appeared.

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