The Day Billy Graham Did the Unthinkable

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Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say that the most segregated hour in the country was on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m.

However, that all began to slowly change in 1952 when the Reverend Billy Graham made a decision to stop holding segregated crusades.

He faced an insurmountable amount of criticism for this decision, but with the guidance of King and other leaders such as Reverend Howard Jones - the first black evangelist - Graham changed the face of religion in America as we know it.

A Trip Back in Time

The year was 1953. America's borders were filled with racial tension and uncertainty.

Graham was sailing uncharted territory when he did the unthinkable. He held a crusade in Chattanooga, Tennessee where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children of all races sat together and worshiped the Lord.

"When God looks at you, He doesn't look on the outward appearance; the Bible says He looks upon the heart," Graham said. And he took his fight to end segregation to the streets.

Graham had been preaching at Madison Square Garden to thousands nightly, but very few blacks came. So, at the suggestion of a colleague, he asked Jones for help. Jones recommended that Graham take his message to the streets of New York, and that's exactly what he did.

Jones said, "I decided I was never going to speak to anymore segregated audiences and he said, 'I want it to be that way. He said, 'What do you mean?' I said 'Go to Harlem.'"

Graham preached at Salem Methodist Church to thousands. The next week, he went to Brooklyn. And slowly, but surely, the crusades in New York became increasingly integrated.

Prominent singer Ethel Waters attended the event and re-dedicated her life to Christ.

Enter… Martin Luther King

Graham even invited his good friend King, to one of the events.

"We thank Thee this evening for the marvelous things that have been done in the city through the dynamic preaching of this evangelist. We ask Thee, oh God, to continue blessing him and give him power and authorities. divine influence," King prayed.

Graham faced a flurry of criticism from both blacks and whites, but that did not deter him.

"Some whites wanted to know why you would fool around with these people. And some said if you're going to integrate your team we will not support you. We will not give you money, so they used all kinds of pressures on him, but he said 'I don't care. I'm going to stick by my guns,'" Jones said.

On the black side, Graham found himself facing criticism that he wasn't doing enough so support the black community and that he "didn't speak enough about civil rights," BGEA associate evangelist Dr. Ralph Bell said.

Graham went to King for advice.

Graham recounted his conversation with King: "Martin Luther King suggested to me that I stay in the South and hold integrated meetings and that he was going to take to the streets and that he would probably get killed in the streets. 'But I don't think you ought to because you are going to be able to do some things that I can't and I'm going to be able to do some things you can't, but we're after the same objective.'"

And so he did, holding crusades from Arkansas to Alabama.

"So here we were with neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood in my state on the verge of violence, and yet tens of thousands of black and white Christians were there together in a football stadium," recalled former President Bill Clinton.

"And when he issued the call at the end of this message, thousands came down holding hands, arm in arm crying," Clinton said. "It was the beginning of the end of the old South in my home state. I will never forget it."

He even went to South Africa preaching before an integrated audience in 1973.

Graham also worked closely with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon - urging them to ensure equality for all.

"Then there's the race problem, and it seems to me should be put in its proper perspective" Graham said. "It is a world problem… there is greater improvement being made in America than perhaps any great nation in the history of the world because we are at least attempting to solve the problem through understanding, through dialogue, through legislation.

Graham's Bequest

In the end, Graham's legacy is one that is filled with a message of love, togetherness, and unity.

Jones said, "I think Billy has proven the fact that in Christ there's no east or west and no north or south. We just love Him."

Graham said, "The human heart is the same the world over. Only Christ can meet the deepest needs of our world and our hearts. Christ alone can bring lasting peace -- peace with God, peace among men and nations."

*Original broadcast February 22, 2008.

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