In a 1957 interview, popular evangelist William “Billy” Graham commended Martin Luther King for providing “an example of Christian love” as a means of confronting America’s race problem (Moore, 454). Although both men were evangelical ministers who opposed racism and segregation, their approach to social issues differed. In contrast to King’s tactic of nonviolent direct action, Graham believed that conversion was the most effective route to racial harmony and social change.
Graham was born 7 November 1918, on a farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. During his studies at Florida Bible Institute at St. Petersburg, he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1939. He then received a BA (1943) from Wheaton College in Illinois. From 1943 to 1945, he was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois. In 1947 Graham began his evangelical ministry, and in 1950 he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Graham and King first met during the Montgomery bus boycott. In May 1957, Graham opened his summer-long New York Crusade, whose executive committee included King’s clerical compatriots Thomas Kilgore and Gardner Taylor. Graham preached from the steps of Sandy Ray’s Cornerstone Baptist Church in July as part of his crusade calling for “anti-segregation legislation” (“Graham Says Country”). Graham later invited King to participate in the New York Crusade, and on 18 July 1957, King joined him on the platform at Madison Square Garden. King led the congregation in a prayer, calling “for a warless world and for a brotherhood that transcends race or color” (Papers 4:238). Writing Graham after his appearance, King praised his commitment to hold nonsegregated revivals, commenting: “You have courageously brought the Christian gospel to bear on the question of race” (Papers 4:265). In the summer of 1960, King and Graham traveled together to the Tenth Baptist World Congress of the Baptist World Alliance. Graham held integrated crusades in Birmingham, Alabama, on Easter 1964 in the aftermath of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and toured Alabama again in the wake of the violence that accompanied the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
Tensions between the two leaders emerged in 1958 when the sponsoring committee of a crusade in San Antonio, Texas, arranged for Graham to be introduced by that state’s segregationist governor, Price Daniel. King objected to Daniel’s appearance as an “endorsement of racial segregation and discrimination” (Papers 4:457). Graham’s advisor, Grady Wilson, replied that “even though we do not see eye to eye with him on every issue, we still love him in Christ” (Papers 4:458). Graham and King would also come to differ on the Vietnam War. After King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech denouncing U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Graham castigated him and others for their criticism of American foreign policy. Following King’s assassination in 1968, Graham mourned that America had lost “a social leader and a prophet” (Graham, 696).
Graham, Just as I Am, 1997.
Graham, “No Color Line in Heaven,” Ebony, August 1957.
“Graham Says Country Needs ‘Anti-segregation Legislation,’” Baltimore Afro-American, 27 July 1957.
King, Invocation Delivered at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Crusade, 18 July 1957, in Papers 4:238.
King to Graham, 31 August 1957, in Papers 4:264–265.
King to Graham, 23 July 1958, in Papers 4:457–458.
Edward L. Moore, “Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr.: An Inquiry into White and Black Revivalistic Traditions,” Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1979.
Wilson to King, 28 July 1958, in Papers 4:458.