As the nation mourned the death of “America’s pastor,” one aspect of the Rev. Billy Graham‘s life especially worth highlighting is his connection to the historic civil rights movement. The Christian evangelist evolved from a farmer’s son in the segregated South into an unlikely proponent of racial equality, intersecting with the lives of two of the most iconic Black people to ever live: Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama.
King and Graham first met in New York City in 1957—at Graham’s invitation—to “help us understand the racial situation in American more fully,” Graham later recalled.
King would go on to credit Graham for the social and political progress he was able to make. “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been,” King said.
It may have been the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation ruling of Brown V. Board of Education in 1954 that really opened Graham’s eyes to social injustices toward Black people in America. After that decision, he began declining invitations to preach to segregated congregations and later held integrated crusades in Alabama. Even more, his relationship with King grew after their meeting in 1957, when he paid to bail the civil rights leader out go jail.
Reflecting on his involvement in the equality movement, Graham regretted not doing more.
“I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma,” he admitted to the Associated Press in 2005. Several White clergyman had joined with King in the historic Alabama march, which was a pivotal moment in the struggle.
Graham also made his presence felt politically, meeting with every president since Harry Truman including Obama, when the two sat down at the minister’s mountaintop home in Montreat, North Carolina, in 2010.
Obama recalled the meeting as a deeply spiritual and humbling experience which included the president praying for the renown preacher. “The fact that I would ever be on the top of a mountain, saying a prayer for Billy Graham, a man whose faith had changed the world…that simple fact humbled me to my core,” Obama said two years later.
On the flip side of things, by no means was Graham pro-Black by any stretch of the imagination.
“Graham taught Americans that the federal government could not be an instrument of God to bring about justice, not on race matters and not on other significant issues,” the Guardian wrote in a column published Wednesday. “Although he believed in racial equality, his theology blinded him to what we now know was the best means for achieving that equality.”
It didn’t stop there.
“He could have tackled racism, America’s original sin, by championing the federal government’s aggressive civil rights policies,” the Guardian continued. “But he squandered it.”
Chances are King and Obama were well aware of Graham’s past as it pertained to race relations, but perhaps they also knew the potential benefits of the optics behind showing a united front with Graham far outweighed the negatives.
Graham died Wednesday at the age of 99.