In July 1952, when I was 11 years old, some of my relatives took me to witness the Billy Graham Crusade in Jackson, Miss. Ropes were strung across the athletic field and stands where more than 300,000 people would gather to hear him preach during those hot summer nights. The ropes had one purpose: to keep the crowd segregated by the color of their skin.
I still remember, nearly 70 years later, watching as Rev. Graham walked down off the podium where he was to preach and pulled down those ropes. That was the day that he declared he would never again preach to a segregated congregation, because the gospel of Jesus Christ welcomes all equally. It was a courageous act for which he was heavily criticized, notoriously so in the segregated South. Nonetheless, in pulling down those ropes he demonstrated his belief in the words of the gospel, and over the rest of life stood with other religious leaders who were working to bring down the barriers of racism.
It also was during this historic crusade that Rev. Graham’s son Franklin was born. I came to know of Franklin when I was called to the ministry at the age of 17. Over the years, I shared the pulpit many times with his father, including when I was pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minn., in 1973 and Rev. Graham held a crusade there. When Rev. Graham passed away, I attended his funeral, which marked the point at which Franklin assumed leadership of the ministry. We all hoped fervently that he would continue his father's legacy of applying the tenets of Christianity to the fight for racial justice.
Alas, when that support has been needed most, in the face of the resurgence of the overt racism his father took a brave step to help end, Franklin has turned his back on us. Instead of tearing down the ropes of racism, he is lending his voice in support of a president who is doing all he can to see that those ropes are tied into nooses.
Since the day he first sat in the Oval Office, Donald Trump has worked to create division and divisiveness in our country. He has celebrated overt acts of racism, injustice, and brutality. When George Floyd was murdered on camera by a white Minneapolis police officer last month while three other officers watched, Trump did not lead the nation and decry the police brutality and systemic racism on open display. Instead, he built a barricade around the White House and ordered the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters so he could take what he called a “beautiful picture”— a photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible he does not follow.
Then, he announced he would hold his first political rally in months on Juneteenth, the day the black community marks the end of slavery, and in Tulsa, where in 1921 white mobs massacred 300 black citizens and burned their prosperous neighborhood to the ground. It was such a poisonous plan — historian CeLillianne Green, in an article in the Washington Post, called it “almost blasphemous to the people of Tulsa” — that Trump was forced to postpone it (but only by one day).
This is the man who has the unwavering support of the heir to Rev. Billy Graham’s ministry. How can Franklin Graham — Rev. Franklin Graham, a man claiming to be a staunch Christian — not stand up against these outrages? When I asked him to join with me and other faith leaders in demanding justice for George Floyd and to stand together with those demanding an end to systemic racism and injustice, he declined.
Among the many reasons he gave me was that he would be in Alaska. But he had no trouble getting media coverage of his visit, to the town of King Salmon or posting a lengthy Facebook statement praising Trump’s photo op.
I am enormously troubled that an individual of Rev. Franklin Graham’s stature in the evangelical community would be so clearly on the wrong side of the issue and the wrong side of history. I am deeply disappointed in a response that is so much at odds with what his father believed, and utterly at odds with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Rev. Billy Graham was hardly perfect — all of us are flawed, because we are human. There were examples during his life where he made statements that were hurtful to the black community. But true to his Christian faith, he also recognized when he erred and asked for forgiveness — which was given to him in that same Christian spirit.
Franklin, you too have erred. You need only look at your Bible and in the mirror to see the hypocrisy of your silence on systemic racism and support for Donald Trump. You need only look at those with whom you stand, like R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose abject failure to speak out against racial injustice has led to calls for his ouster. I implore you, in the name of your father, and our heavenly Father, to acknowledge your error as your father did. I implore you to stand with us, reject racism, work for reform, and add your name to the list of those who work for the removal of Trump from the people’s house.