American evangelist Billy Graham points upward as he preaches, early 1950s.
Evangelist Billy Graham has died
02:38 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. electrified the nation when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, but there was another famous American pastor who was not impressed.

Billy Graham, who had refused to participate in the 1963 March on Washington, dismissed King’s belief that protests could create a “Beloved Community” in America where even “down in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will join hands with little white boys and white girls.”

“Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children,” Graham said after King’s speech.

Graham’s response to the epic march raises a question about his legacy that some scholars and activists have asked for years: How can anyone call Graham a great pastor when he refused to take a clear, unequivocal public stand against the greatest moral evil America faced in his day: racial segregation?

Graham occasionally preached racial tolerance and held integrated crusades during the civil rights era. But even some of his biggest supporters say Graham accepted segregation at some of his crusades, criticized marches and sit-ins, and would not risk his popularity by confronting segregation head-on.

One Graham biographer says he even tried to sabotage the civil rights movement.

“There wasn’t a major Protestant leader in America who obstructed King’s Beloved Community more than Billy Graham did,” says Michael E. Long, author of “Billy Graham and the Beloved Community: America’s Evangelist and the Dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“Graham was constantly making statements opposing King and his dream,” says Long, an associate professor of religion at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. “Graham’s legacy is definitely tarnished by the way he approached racial justice.”

Questions about Graham’s response toward racism have lingered for years. But criticism of the evangelist gradually receded as he became an American folk hero in his old age. When the 99-year-old evangelist died at his home in Montreat, North Carolina on Wednesday, he was known as “America’s pastor.” Presidents sought his counsel. Millions packed stadiums for his crusades. And through it all, no scandal ever besmirched Graham during his six decades in the public eye.

But any look at Graham’s legacy that does not examine his actions during the civil rights movement is incomplete, some scholars say. Graham’s rise coincided with the most turbulent years of the movement, when pastors and public figures were forced to make choices that would define them for the rest of their lives.

Civil rights coward or hero?

For some, Graham was a civil rights hero. They say he was a close friend and collaborator with King, that he insisted on integrating his crusades in the segregated South, and that he preached a gospel of racial tolerance so forcefully that some of his fellow Southerners called him a communist and a “nigger lover.”

Graham actually helped dismantle segregation, says Steven P. Miller, author of “Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South.”

“Graham contributed to the theological defeat of segregation,” Miller tells CNN. “He could reach an audience that civil rights activists obviously could not. And on several notable occasions, he made a point of using that sway to link his evangelistic message with racial tolerance.”

For others, Graham was a civil rights coward. They say he distorted his relationship with King, that his nods to racial tolerance were token and inconsistent, and that he refused to risk his fame by championing the movement while other white ministers lost their jobs, and lives, for their activism.

Even some of Graham’s biggest admirers say his stance on racism during the 1950s and ’60s was wobbly.

William Martin, professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University in Texas, is credited with writing the definitive biography of Graham, “A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story.” Martin’s book, which contains the story of Graham’s dismissal of King’s “Dream” speech, is filled with unabashed admiration for his subject and has been cited by Graham admirers.

Yet even Martin’s book shows that Graham’s conduct during the heyday of the civil rights movement was anything but resolute. According to Martin, Graham would preach that “all men are created equal under God,” but backtracked when segregationists criticized him by saying he “followed the existing social customs” in whatever region of the country he preached. He sometimes accepted segregated seating at his crusades for fear of offending whites. And, according to Martin, Graham once told a Southern newspaper that the Bible “has nothing to say about segregation or non-segregation.”

Graham wasn’t callous about racism; he wanted to be popular, Martin wrote.

“Graham clearly felt an obligation to speak against segregation, but he also believed his first duty was to appeal to as many people as possible. Sometimes he found these two convictions difficult to reconcile,” Martin wrote in “A Prophet with Honor.”

There were times that Graham took a stand against racism, according to Martin.

As early as 1953, Graham told a Chattanooga, Tennessee, crusade that he would not accept the usual practice of segregated seating and personally removed the ropes marking the section for blacks. He declared in a newspaper column that the Bible did not teach racial superiority. He privately urged segregationist Southern governors to “consider the racial problem from a spiritual point of view.”

Those actions might seem tepid today, especially in contrast to King’s speeches, writings and street protests. But Martin points out that Graham was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the reign of Jim Crow. His father used the n-word, whites were taught that blacks were inferior, and many evangelical Christians in the North as well as the South saw no contradiction between supporting segregation and being a Christian.

“Of course he could have spoken out more forcefully against segregation, but he spoke out more forcefully than anybody expected him,” Martin says. “Graham was never out in front of the parade on segregation, but he was always out in front of his unit.”

Theology vs. the movement

Graham’s reluctance to embrace the civil rights movement wasn’t just complicated by his yearning for popularity. It was stymied by his theology, several scholars say.

His message was relentlessly focused on one goal: saving souls for Jesus. Graham spoke of racism as “a heart problem” that could be solved simply by converting people to Christianity, says Lewis V. Baldwin, professor emeritus of religious studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

King and other pastors thought Graham’s approach was narrow, that unjust laws and institutions promoting racism had to be changed, not just people’s hearts, Baldwin says.

Graham, though, could not embrace a Christianity that went beyond saving souls, says Baldwin, author of “The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King Jr.”

“He opposed racism and segregation in principle but refused to consistently attack it publicly and also refused to march with King and other ministers who protested against these social evils,” Baldwin says. “This is where Graham missed the mark.”

At times, Graham even criticized civil rights marchers.

Graham condemned the civil disobedience tactics they used during the 1965 campaign in Selma, Alabama, Martin wrote in “A Prophet without Honor.” An act of civil disobedience produced one of the most galvanizing moments in the movement: Unarmed demonstrators marching for the right to vote were filmed being beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for refusing an order to disperse.

Footage of that march shocked the nation and eventually led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

According to Martin’s biography, Graham said at the time that only “a spiritual and moral awakening” would solve the nation’s race problems, adding that “if the law says that I cannot march or I cannot demonstrate, I ought not to march and I ought not to demonstrate.”

“Billy Graham was uncomfortable with confrontation,” Martin says. “He wanted to move along in an orderly fashion. He wasn’t comfortable with some of MLK’s tactics.”

MLK, friend or foe?

The times, though, called for confrontation, King preached, and that belief produced tension between the civil rights leader and Graham.

The nature of Graham’s relationship with King is the subject of an ongoing dispute between Graham supporters and civil rights veterans and historians.

Graham supporters say the pastors were friends and collaborators. They point out that King accepted Graham’s invitation to deliver an opening prayer at a 1957 crusade in New York. They say King asked Graham to call him “Mike,” a name reserved for King’s closest friends. They say Graham even bailed King out of jail.

King did indeed praise Graham for his stance on civil rights. After the 1957 New York crusade, King wrote Graham thanking him for his “courageous” stand on race relations. He then urged him to take his integrated crusades to the Deep South, according to a letter collected in the King Papers Project, a collection of King’s speeches, unpublished manuscripts and other written works held at Stanford University in California.

“You have courageously brought the Christian gospel to bear on the question of race in all of its urgent dimensions,” King wrote Graham in a letter dated August 31, 1957.

A year later, King’s tone shifted. He wrote Graham urging him to rescind his invitation to a segregationist governor to open a crusade rally. King told Graham that allowing Price Daniel, Texas’ governor at the time, to open the rally could imply endorsement of discrimination and that Graham should “make crystal clear” his position on segregation.

Graham did not respond in writing to King, but his adviser and childhood companion, Grady Wilson, quickly wrote back, brushing aside King’s request.

In his letter, also in the King Papers Project, Wilson told King that Graham “has never engaged in politics on one side or the other.” He also told King that Graham loved the governor despite his views and “frankly, I think that should be your position.”

The most controversial claim about King and Graham’s relationship is that the civil rights leader blessed Graham’s decision not to march with civil rights demonstrators.

That claim comes from a popular story told by Graham supporters. They say King and Graham made a deal: Graham would confine his message to his crusades, while King would take his message to the streets.

Graham spread that story himself. There are scattered examples in audio recordings and in print – including “Billy Graham and the Beloved Community” – of Graham telling a variation of the same story.

The author of that book, Long, quotes Graham saying about King:

“He said, ‘Billy … I think you ought to do just what you’re doing – have integrated crusades in these stadiums. That helps prepare the way for me in the South … but if you go to the streets, your people will desert you, and you won’t have the opportunity to have these integrated crusades.’ “

Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor,” says he’s never seen evidence of such an agreement but wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.

“I don’t think Billy Graham would have made up such a conversation,” Martin says. “I don’t know that King ever denied it.”

Those who were part of King’s inner circle, though, said they never heard of that conversation or any deal.

When asked if Graham and King were friends and collaborators, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close friend of King, chuckled.

“No, that’s language,” says Vivian, who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his civil rights activism.

“I don’t remember such a time, and I was with Dr. King a long time, and with him at every major stand,” Vivian says. “It’s hard to find pictures of the two together.”

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who was also part of King’s inner circle at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, described King’s relationship with Graham as cordial but tinged with conflict.

“I’m not aware that they were close friends,” Lowery says. “Nor would I consider him a strong partner of Dr. King. I’m aware that they knew each other and engaged in conversations from time to time.”

Lowery doesn’t think King made any deal with Graham.

“I never heard that,” Lowery says. “Dr. King would not have made any kind of deal with anybody. Dr. King was his own man. Dr. King was critical of Billy Graham and his failure to speak out on segregation issues.”

There’s another story that others tell about a suggested deal between Graham and King that sends a far different message.

In “Parting the Waters,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King, author Taylor Branch wrote that King once approached Graham with a proposal: I’ll participate in your crusades if you speak out more against segregation. Graham refused, Branch wrote, because he was concerned about becoming too political.

The notion that Graham and King would have been collaborators is far-fetched, says Miller, author of “Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South.” Miller says he also never found proof that Graham bailed King out of jail, as some Graham supporters have claimed.

“There were dreams of a King-Graham alliance but it never came about,” Miller says. “Graham was never one to seek out controversy. Formally associating with King would have been a huge risk and a significant departure from the way Graham normally approached evangelism.”

Foe of the movement?

Another perspective on Graham’s stance toward the civil rights movement is even more critical. One scholar says Graham tried to undermine the movement.

Long, author of “Billy Graham and the Beloved Community,” says Graham was a constant critic of th