Three things come to mind when Dr. Tony Evans is asked about the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
It’s not where he was. Or who he was with. Or how he first heard the news.
But the raw emotions that filled his spirit.
“Pain, shock and fear,” said Dr. Evans, who was then a student at Carver Bible College in Atlanta. “I knew that would ignite a firestorm.”
And more than 45 years later, Dr. Evans can look back and see how impactful Dr. King’s life — and death — was to him personally. But he can also look across the country through the lens of history and see how precious little has changed when it comes to the racial issues of our nation.
“It’s not close to being resolved,” Dr. Evans said. “It keeps popping up. It’s just below the surface.
“Any little thing will blow it up. Anything that even hints to a potential of racial nuance can be exacerbated into a major issue.”
Which is why he took the time to talk on the subject in an interview with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
MLK Jr. and Billy Graham
There was a common bond that linked Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham, who made it a mission to fully support the civil rights movement.
In 1953, Mr. Graham personally moved the ropes that were in place to segregate his Crusade in Chattanooga, Tenn.
In 1957, Dr. King joined Mr. Graham at his Crusade in New York City. And in 1960, Mr. Graham bailed him out of jail after Dr. King was arrested in a demonstration.
“What I was seeing was that when (Billy Graham) had Crusades, people were coming together across racial lines — of course, this was because he refused to have segregated Crusades,” Dr. Evans said. “They were coming together across racial lines in a way that the evangelical church couldn’t bring them together.”
Mr. Graham’s stance on racial unity expanded beyond the borders of the United States. Five years after Dr. King’s death, Mr. Graham preached at South Africa’s first integrated public meeting after two decades of refusing to hold a segregated Crusade in that country.
“My respect for (Mr. Graham) — not only for the Gospel foremost — but for his stand that he would not allow the divisions of the culture be divisions of the Kingdom,” Dr. Evans said. “That just heightened my respect for him.”
Dr. Evans shared about visiting Mr. Graham at his North Carolina mountain home and feeling the deep burden Mr. Graham was still carrying over uniting the church.
“He was bemoaning the fact that people would be coming together at his Crusade across racial and denominational and cultural lines,” Dr. Evans said, “But then disperse after the Crusades and not connect after that.”
Impact on Ministry
As Dr. Evans retraces his steps to where his ministry is today, he can easily pinpoint Dr. King’s influence.
“He put before us the fact that the God of righteousness is also a God of fairness,” Dr. Evans said. “And what was happening in America that led to the civil rights movement was not only wrong culturally and societally but also spiritually and theologically.”
It wasn’t just Dr. King’s “masterful leadership” that moved Dr. Evans, but how he did it in “a nonviolent context.”
“It affected me in terms of my theological study because I wanted to understand what the relationship of God was to the civil rights movement,” Dr. Evans said. “I had to deal with churches who would not allow us to attend as African Americans but at the same time talk about the love and unity of the body of Christ.”
And it was in the nitty-gritty of this soul-searching that pushed him into a deeper study of the Bible: “In fact, it helped lead me to seminary and brought me to Dallas (Theological Seminary).”
Dr. Evans ultimately came to the conclusion that “The God of the Gospel for eternal life was also the God of the Gospel for justice and righteousness and unity.”
“Because he brought to the forefront of our nation the importance of biblical justice,” Dr. Evans continued, “I will be totally indebted to the life, legacy and work of Dr. Martin Luther King.”