“A great social revolution is going on in the United States today,” I said, introducing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the audience in Madison Square Garden one night during the 1957 New York Crusade.
We know how far-reaching that revolution would prove to be, but at the same time we could not see the future and few realized just how radically the civil rights movement would eventually change the face of America.
Nor is it easy for later generations to realize what the racial situation in much of the United States before the precedent-setting 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools.
I cannot point to any single event or intellectual crisis that changed my mind on racial equality. At Wheaton College, I made friends with black students, and I recall vividly one of them coming to my room one day and talking with deep conviction about America’s need for racial justice.
Most influential, however, was my study of the Bible, leading me eventually to the conclusion that not only was racial inequality wrong but Christians especially should demonstrate love toward all peoples.
Early on, Dr. King and I spoke about his method of using non-violent demonstrations to bring an end to racial segregation. He urged me to keep on doing what I was doing – preaching the Gospel to integrated audiences and supporting his goals by example – and not to join him in the streets.
“You stay in the stadiums, Billy,” he said, “because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets. Besides that, you have a constituency that will listen to you, especially among white people, who may not listen so much to me. But if a leader gets too far out in front of his people, they will lose sight of him and not follow him any longer.”
I followed his advice.