Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Harmony in Progress Toward Civil Rights

In narratives about the advancements made in the 1950's as America sought to give civil rights and legal equality to all its citizens, conflict and violence often appear. There is, however, another side to the story: friendships between Blacks and whites, camaraderie between African-Americans and those of European heritage. These relationships were both the fruit of, and the means to, advancement in the area of civil rights.

One example of such collegiality is the cooperation between Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. This collaboration was natural, because they were both professional clergymen, and agreed on both civil and spiritual issues. Historian William Martin, at Rice University, writes:

Leaders of the New Evangelical movement had urged evangelicals to revive the 19th-century practice of active involvement in social reform. Graham had not only spoken out on the major domestic issue of the time, racial segregation, but since the early 1950s had refused to allow segregated seating in his meetings. He went a step further in New York, persuading a young African American preacher, Howard Jones, to join his team as an associate evangelist.

Billy Graham often spoke in large public facilities (sports arenas, movie theaters, and auditoriums), and in some southern cities, these buildings were clearly segregated, with a "white" area and a "colored" area. Graham took a bold step by announcing that he would allow no segregated seating in his gatherings. This made a Graham the target for anti-Christian hate groups, like the KKK. But he didn't stop with that:

More dramatically, at a time when sit-ins and boycotts were stirring racial tensions in the South, Graham invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to discuss the racial situation with him and his colleagues. Then, before a capacity crowd at the Garden, he invited the black leader to join him on the platform and to lead the congregation in prayer. In his introduction, he said, "A great social revolution is going on in the United States today. Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out of his busy schedule to come and share this service with us tonight."

In some southern cities, a black man and a white man speaking together to a mixed audience was truly revolutionary. King and Graham, however, worked together in a way which was natural and comfortable. Their collaboration proved powerful.