Anthea Butler

Anthea Butler

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Billy Graham Wouldn’t Have Supported Rosa Parks

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Evangelical preacher Billy Graham was lain in honor Wednesday in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Graham is the first American religious leader to be accorded that status, and the first private citizen since civil rights icon Rosa Parks was honored in 2005.

Parks and Graham would not have seen eye to eye on many things, and that is a fact worth discussing amid the remembrances of Graham’s life.

Graham promoted a white evangelical respectability that wanted to “put the brakes” on the civil rights movement, and never really accepted women as equal to men. He may have been the country’s greatest evangelist, but he was also an apologist for the racist and sexist beliefs pervasive among white evangelical men in 20th-century America.

Since Graham’s death, much has been said about his friendships with presidents and Martin Luther King Jr. His friendships, however, belied the power he wielded because of his piety.

Graham’s Christianity was steeped not only in political friendships, but also in evangelical ethics. Graham functioned as a megaphone for conservative biblical ideas that dovetailed with conservative politics, including family, sexual morality and adherence to laws. He was not only an evangelist, he was also an enforcer: enforcing conservative white Christian social beliefs and evangelical ethical claims as “America’s Pastor.”

Graham would have told Parks that she needed to obey the law, stay at home, and be content with being a black woman with no rights.

This was apparent in how Graham spoke about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. For his part, King attended Graham’s New York City crusade in July of 1957, and even said an opening prayer at the meeting.

But while Graham spoke often about desegregating his crusades, he placed a premium on moderation and order in the quest for civil rights. For Graham, dissent meant disobedience to both God and the laws of the land. Later, Graham would decline to take a stand on sit-ins, declaring, “No matter what the law may be — it may be an unjust law — I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it.”

Graham would have told Parks that she needed to obey the law, stay at home, and be content with being a black woman with no rights.

Graham, while lauded for his integrated evangelistic services in the south, would also gloss over the wounds of racism. In 1958, King would ask Graham not to appear with the then-governor of Texas, Price Daniels, because in King’s words, “It can well be interpreted as your endorsement of racial segregation and discrimination.” Graham appeared anyway, ignoring King.

After King’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” appeared in April of 1963, Graham told press that King “should put the brakes on a little bit.”

The following year, in preparation for Easter Sunday services six months after the Birmingham bombings in March of 1964, Graham would elide the horror of the bombings, saying they didn’t represent ”the real Birmingham.”

“This city is recovering from its bad image, by just doing things like the meeting tomorrow,” he said.

Graham may have wanted integration, but instead, he promoted gradualism, and provided absolution for racists hiding behind a Christianity attuned not only to Jesus, but also focused on regulating behavior and black bodies.

Graham's casket arrives at the U.S. Capitol.
Graham’s casket arrives at the U.S. Capitol.

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