When Billy Graham said 'No'

In this June 27, 1954 file photo, Evangelist Billy Graham speaks to more than 100,000 Berliners at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany.  Graham transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history.
In this June 27, 1954 file photo, Evangelist Billy Graham speaks to more than 100,000 Berliners at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany. Graham transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history.
AP FILE PHOTO
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Billy Graham was a son of the segregated South. He grew up, as did I, with signs declaring "Whites Only" and "No Colored Served Here." Division by race was the abnormal accepted thing. It was understood that black people who showed up at "white" churches would be met at the door and redirected to a church for "their kind."

Billy Graham became a national figure in 1949 with the Los Angeles crusade. Invitations to conduct city-wide crusades poured in, including invitations in Southern cities. During the first Southern city-wide crusades, whites and blacks were seated in different sections, as was the custom. But the Holy Spirit began to trouble Billy's heart.

The defining moment came in 1953, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King Jr., before lunch counter sit-ins, before Civil Rights marches. It happened in Chattanooga, a Southern city with deep racial division (what Southern city didn't have deep racial divisions?).

The stadium where the crusade was tobe held had been divided into white and black sections, as was the custom. Ropes marked the division.

When Billy Graham came to the stadium prior to the first night of the crusade, he saw the ropes. This time, he said, "No." With holy passion he mounted the steps of the stadium and began to pull down the ropes and the signs. Local Crusade organizers tried to stop him. He bluntly told them, "Leave the ropes down or you can have the crusade without me." The ropes stayed down. The gospel was preached. Whites and blacks came forward together to receive Christ. Because one man said, "No."

It is hard now, in 2018, to realize how courageous this act was. Just three years after Chattanooga, Billy Graham's pastor, W.A. Criswell, would proclaim to the South Carolina Legislature that "anyone who believes in integration is dead from the neck up." Graham quickly made a statement to the press, saying, "My pastor and I have never seen eye to eye on the race question." What Graham did not say was that a great number of his financial backers expected Graham to support segregation or at least stay silent on race. But Graham would not budge. Every crusade would be integrated - period. For more than 20 years, Billy Graham refused to hold a crusade in South Africa, until segregation laws were repealed.

True, Billy Graham did not march with Martin Luther King Jr. By his own admission, he became too involved in politics during the Nixon Administration. He was not perfect, nor did he claim to be.

But for millions of Americans who had been touched by his ministry, a new thought formed: "If Billy Graham says 'no' to segregation, maybe I should say 'no' too."

I remember as a child seeing televised crusades. The camera would pan over the choir, and I would see black people singing next to white people. I had never seen that growing up in rural Florida. Even in my child's mind, something said, "This must be good, if it's happening at a Billy Graham crusade."

Billy Graham has always been my hero. He preached the gospel. Millions came to know Jesus. He used modern media to share Jesus. He made it OK to have music that sounded contemporary in Christian gathering. He spoke as the prophet America needed to hear, once saying to a white audience, "We have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride." He was the nation's pastor, a calming voice of faith when tragedy struck.

And he tore down the ropes.

Thank you, Billy Graham, for saying "No."

Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.