“A great social revolution is going on in the United States today,” I said, introducing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the audience in Madison Square Garden one night during the 1957 New York Crusade.
With the benefit of four decades of hindsight, we know how far-reaching that revolution would prove to be, but at the time we could not see the future and few realized just how radically the civil rights movement would eventually change the face of America. Nor is it easy for later generations to realize what the racial situation was in much of the United States before the precedent-setting 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools.
I cannot point to any single event or intellectual crisis that changed my mind on racial equality. Growing up in the rural South, I had adopted the attitudes of that region without much reflection, though as I have said, aside from my father, I admired no one as much as Reese Brown, the black foreman on our dairy farm. As a boy, I loved reading the Tarzan adventure books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, although even at the time it bothered me that white people were consistently portrayed in them as superior to blacks. At Wheaton College, I made friends with black students, and I recall vividly one of them coming to my room one day and talking with deep conviction about America’s need for racial justice. Most influential, however, was my study of the Bible, leading me eventually to the conclusion that not only was racial inequality wrong but Christians especially should demonstrate love toward all peoples.
In 1953, during our Crusade in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I went into the building as the people were beginning to gather one night and personally tore down the ropes separating the white from the black sections – ropes that had been mandated according to the custom in those days by the local committee. My action caused the head usher to resign in anger on the spot (and raised some other hackles), but I did not back down.
Civil rights were very much in the forefront in America during the 1960s and early 1970s. As the issue unfolded, I sometimes found myself under fire from both sides, extreme conservatives castigating me for doing too much and extreme liberals blaming me for not doing enough. In reality, both groups tended to stand aloof from our evangelistic Crusades, but those people who actively supported us understood very well our commitment to doing what we could through our evangelism to end the blight of racism.
Early on, Dr. King and I spoke about his method of using non-violent demonstrations to bring an end to racial segregation. He urged me to keep doing what I was doing – preaching the Gospel to integrated audiences and supporting his goals by example – and not join him in the streets. “You stay in the stadiums, Billy,” he said, “because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets. Besides that, you have a constituency that will listen to you, especially among the white people, who may not listen so much to me. But if a leader gets too far out in front of his people, they will lose sight of him and not follow him any longer.” I followed his advice.
from Just As I Am by Billy Graham