When Billy Graham came to Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., in 1965, the Rev. A.L. Wilson sat on the platform, one of several African Americans on the executive committee that had organized the event.
In front of him was an uncommon sight in racially troubled Alabama–thousands of blacks and whites sitting together, side by side, in the university’s Cliff Hare Stadium. Many people of both races walked forward together that night to accept Christ.
“That was right on the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, so one thing we were seeking was good race relations,” Wilson said. “We wanted to get people to know each other, so we thought the church would be a good place to start.”
The Auburn Crusade was one of four conducted by Mr. Graham as a result of a request from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Sixteen thousand people attended the event and later that summer, Mr. Graham canceled a vacation in Europe to hold a 10-day Crusade in Montgomery. Nearly 100,000 people attended those meetings, and more than 4,000 accepted Christ.
Will Graham’s East Alabama/West Georgia Celebration has been a testimony to how churches in Auburn and nearby Opelika have continued to work together across denominational and racial lines.
“Out of the Auburn University meeting we began to associate with various other churches in Lee County,” Wilson said. “Each year, since that time, we have held a meeting in a black church with a white pastor or in a white church with a black pastor. We exchange choirs as well.”
Mr. Graham’s Alabama meetings followed months of racial unrest in the South–Gov. George Wallace’s failed attempt in 1962 to block the University of Alabama doors from African American students; the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, in which four young black girls were killed; the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; the march from Selma to Montgomery to gain voting rights for blacks, and the burning of the bus carrying the “Freedom Riders,” a group of civil rights activists traveling South to ensure that civil rights laws were being enforced.
During the march from Selma to Montgomery, African Americans were badly beaten and attacked by police dogs. It was then that President Johnson called Mr. Graham to ask if he would hold a series of meetings in Alabama.
The late Olin Hill often told his daughter Olene Hill Stoker and her husband, Mack, how the Auburn event came about.
Hill, an Auburn clothing store owner and Christian leader, had become friends with T.W. Wilson when T.W. was pastoring a church in Opelika. When Hill heard that the Graham Crusade was coming to the University of Alabama, he called T.W., by then a BGEA Associate Evangelist, to see if the Crusade could also come to Auburn.
“Dr. Graham said he would come if Daddy could get all the black and white pastors together for a breakfast,” Olene said. “And he said black and white ministers were to sit on the platform with him during the event.”
Now, four decades later, Christian leaders say the racial climate is much improved.
“Racially, I believe this area is probably now no different than most parts of the country,” said Banks Herndon, chair of the Will Graham event. “There will always be extremists, but I believe that the majority of residents here see people as people.”
The burning issue for the church now is apathy.
“There are a number of Christ followers in this area, but a lot of people have no idea what it means to follow Christ,” Herndon said. “People are simply focused more on self as opposed to others. When I was growing up, everybody that I knew was exposed to the Gospel through church. Now there are so many people who have no exposure to anything other than the secular. I have very good friends in that camp. They give philanthropically; they’re great people. But they don’t know the Lord.”
Billy Graham spoke in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 to some of the first integrated audiences
Mark McCarty, who initiated the Will Graham event, said the Celebration is part of the church’s effort to fulfill the Great Commission.
“Daily, people are going into a Christless eternity,” McCarty said. “One of the driving forces behind this event is that we believe God has called us to fulfill the Great Commission. Additionally, we want to raise up new workers for the harvest field. The Christian Life and Witness Course has already helped re-sensitize the church to the need for evangelism.”
Because of the economic situation in the country and because of drugs and persistent evil forces, executive committee member William Brown doesn’t see today’s times as any less intense than in 1965.
“We look at money to solve our problems,” he says. “Gambling is an issue we are now fighting in Alabama. The only way we’re ever going to stop evil of any kind is through God.”
That is precisely what Will Graham preached during the Celebration. “When you preach the cross, lives are changed. Homes are changed.”
And the community will be stronger, said committee member Clifford Jones. “When people have an understanding of who Christ is in their lives, it makes a difference.”