In the wake of Billy Graham’s death in 2018 at the age of 99, many commentators remarked on his racial stances. Many pointed to his decision to remove the ropes segregating white and black audience members at one of his crusades in 1953. Others highlight the fact that he invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to give the opening prayer at an evangelistic rally in 1957. While these and other actions certainly place Graham in a different position than hard-line segregationists, Graham apparently had few problems granting a platform to notorious racists.
In July 1958, a pastor in San Antonio wrote a message to King urging him to use his personal connection to Billy Graham to convince the evangelist not to have Texas governor, Price Daniel, appear at an upcoming rally.
“We are appealing to you to wire Dr. Graham . . . .and inform him that such support of a segregationist will do great harm to the Negro throughout the South,” implored the pastor.
King responded to their request by writing Graham a letter.
“The Reverand [sic] G. William Black, President of Baptist Ministers Union of San Antonio, has called to our attention a matter of serious import to the Negro Ministers of that city. Namely, that the special invitation to Governor Price Daniel to introduce you at the San Antonio Ralley [sic] on Friday, July 25th carries political overtones designed to humiliate the Negro citizentry [sic] of Texas ans [sic] the South.”
“If Governor Daniels is identities [sic] with you on the eve of the Democratic Primary, July 26, in which Mr. Daniel is seeking reelection it can well be interpreted as your endorsement of racial segregation and discrimination,” continued King.
King concluded his message to Graham by explaining how associating with a well-known segregationist politician would harm the spread of the Christian message and the cause of black civil rights.
“For any implied indorsement [sic] by you of segregation can have damaging effect on the struggle of Negro Americans for human dignity and will greatly reduce the importance of your message to them as a Christian Minister who believes in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”
In spite of letters from King, congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and others the rally went on as planned with Price introducing Graham.
King’s letter to Graham illustrates the fact that pronouncements and symbolic gestures about racial equality often co-exist with contradictory messages and actions that support racial inequality. By granting a platform to a segregationists governor at one of his rallies, Graham demonstrated that he was not willing to sacrifice powerful connections for the sake of civil rights.
While one might claim that, as an evangelist, Graham would associate with anyone for the cause of sharing the good news, the same result could have been achieved in a different manner. Graham could have had a private meeting with Governor Daniel. He could have had Daniel sit in the audience and simply acknowledge his presence there as the highest elected official in the state.
By giving Daniel, who publicly endorsed segregation and even helped revise the Southern Manifesto, a public platform, Graham communicated tacit endorsement of the governor’s segregationist stances. This was King’s point. Don’t elevate people who openly oppose the God-given dignity and humanity of black people.
Read the full context of the letter at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.
For more context see also the Papers of Claude and ZerNona Black.