In September 1963, four black school children were killed when a bomb destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The incident, which garnered national attention, epitomized the area’s deep racial unrest.
Birmingham was gripped in fear and on the verge of total collapse. But Billy Graham, who had scheduled a Crusade there for the following Easter, was undaunted.
Despite threats of violence, Billy refused to call off an integrated meeting in Birmingham’s Legion Field Stadium. “The Ku Klux Klan went around and knocked out our signs,” he recalls. “The State Police had to send policemen with us wherever we went—before my car and after my car. The police were also in the rooms around me because they were afraid we would get shot.”
The integrated crowd of 30,000—the first ever in Alabama—was peaceful and cordial to one another. According to author John Pollock, “Billy preached a straight address of love, repentance and faith. National press reporters were stunned at the response, when blacks and whites together streamed forward at the invitation.”
George Harris, former editor of Look magazine, would later say Graham’s visit to Birmingham “took a great deal of courage, and was needed very badly.”
Not long after, in the early months of 1965, African Americans were beaten and attacked by police dogs during a march from Selma to Montgomery. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded by calling Billy to ask if he would hold a series of meetings in Alabama. He agreed, preaching in Dothan, Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Tuskegee.
Later that summer, Billy 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.
Two quotes from Billy sum up his view on race during this period. In a 1960 Reader’s Digest article, titled “Brotherhood,” Billy said, “Though the race question has important social implications, it is fundamentally a moral and spiritual issue. Only moral and spiritual approaches can provide a solution.”
And during a 1963 radio broadcast, he said, “Only the supernatural love of God through changed men can solve this burning question. Christ was not so much a reformer as He was a transformer. This does mean the race problem is not to be preached and taught, but it is not to be our Gospel. … The racial problem in America will not be settled in the streets, but it could be settled in the hearts of men in a spiritual dimension.”