Billy Graham: From Civil Rights to Praying With Presidents

‘America’s pastor,’ who met with 12 U.S. presidents, has died at the age of 99. He changed America’s religious landscape not with his message, but with his rapturous aura.

Billy Graham’s Crusades for Christ attracted thousands in the 1950s, shaping the beliefs of a generation of Americans and introducing many to an evangelical faith little known outside the Deep South. Followers were drawn more by his personal magnetism and uncompromising moral authority than the theology he preached. Born in the humblest circumstances on a dairy farm in North Carolina, William Franklin “Billy” Graham rose to national prominence on the strength of his charismatic oratory. He met with 12 presidents and prayed with at least one of them while prominent figures across all disciplines looked to him for pastoral support.

He mixed religion and politics over the course of those dozen presidencies, earning him the honorary title of the nation’s pastor, or pastor in chief. He made his mistakes, and among them he would later say was getting too close to President Nixon, who he counseled and prayed with during the Watergate scandal. He was heard on tape in conversation with Nixon making anti-Semitic remarks, a blemish on a life and career that otherwise was a beacon for tolerance, especially in the Jim Crow South.

Graham died at his home on Wednesday at the age of 99 after suffering a number of illnesses, including prostate cancer, in recent years.  

Both Presidents Carter and Clinton cite him as a major influence on their thinking about civil rights. He wasn’t always on the right side. Some of his early crusades were in segregated auditoriums, and like many, he was complacent for too long. But when he spoke out against segregation and racism, people took notice, and he helped pave the way for a generation of New South politicians.

In his memoir, he recounts an incident in 1953 in which he personally took down ropes installed to separate people by the color of their skin. And in 1957, he invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to join him in addressing a crusade in Madison Square Garden that drew 20,000 people a night for 16 weeks to hear him preach and urge sinners to find Christ. I attended one evening with a friend; we were two teenagers curious to see what Graham was all about.

I can’t remember a word that he said, but his performance was so powerful that we both stepped forward into what otherwise was the center ring of the Barnum & Bailey circus to declare ourselves believers. The feeling didn’t last long, but I would be on Graham’s mailing list for a good 20 years, and will always fondly remember how he was able to elevate to spiritual heights, if only for a few hours, two teenage girls who took the subway into Manhattan from Queens to check out this preacher who was getting so much attention.

Graham would pay bail money to get King out of jail in the 1960s, but they never shared a stage again. Fearful about a backlash if he got too close to the civil-rights leader, Graham didn’t invite him. As the ’60s got underway with flower children and civil-rights protests and anti-war rallies, Graham’s crusades were still drawing thousands of people, providing an alternative to Woodstock and shaping a lot of people’s consciousness. He was the counter-cultural movement of his time, a precursor of the religious right, though he never became part of it, identifying more with religious and political traditionalists.

He was close to the Bush family and it was on a visit to Kennebunkport in 1985 when he went for a walk on the beach with then-Vice President Bush’s dissolute eldest son. George W. Bush subsequently credited his talk with Graham for giving him the strength to seek sobriety. Graham traced his own aversion to alcohol to his father’s forcing him to drink beer as a teenager until it sickened him. It was the elder Graham’s way of teaching his son about the evils of drink when Prohibition ended in 1933.

It was through his crusades, or revival meetings, that Graham became a major national figure. He liked being on the big stage, and he had a voice and a presence that could fill a stadium. After he preached, he would invite people to come forward to make a decision for Christ. Potential converts, known as inquirers, would be welcomed by a counselor who would answer any questions. The late Right Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon, the second woman consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, was among those who accepted Graham’s altar call at a crusade in Memphis. It was 1950, and she was 13 years old.

Fast forward to an interfaith service at the National Cathedral in Washington three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, where Bishop Dixon is presiding, President Bush, the commander in chief, and Graham, the pastor in chief, are speaking, and a scared nation is looking for comfort from both its political and spiritual leaders. In the anteroom waiting to go into the service, Dixon told Graham that hearing him speak that long ago day was one of the primary religious experiences in her life. “I was so moved I made an altar call,” she said. “It was so powerful; I felt I had to do this.”

Seated next to him in the very front of the church, she helped Graham to his feet for the singing of the hymns, but he couldn’t stand for long. He was so frail, she recalled, “but when he went to the lectern all of a sudden he came alive. He was unbelievable. Once he got in that place, the years fell away.”

Graham managed to both electrify and soothe. “He was the person we needed to be with us that day,” says Dixon. “He steadied the nation, he said that we would be all right.” When I asked her what it was that he said, she didn’t remember. “I have no idea what he said, which is true of most sermons,” she laughed. “Mine and everybody else’s.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Graham hewed closely to Old Testament theology, but his appeal had less to do with the message he was delivering, than his aura as a messenger.