A Tale of Two Preachers: Revisited

When I was in school, I was taught that Martin Luther King Jr.’s role model was Mahatma Gandhi.  Judging by the way he helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, many have thought he was   It turns out I was deceived.  King’s chief weapon was not civil disobedience, but rather preaching.  King’s chief inspiration was also not at all Gandhi, but both his father and close friend Billy Graham.  The two had in fact met during the Montgomery boycott.[1]  Learning this makes me wonder what the main purpose of the boycott truly was.

Two years later in 1957, King played a vital role in a summer-long Graham crusade in New York City.  In fact, Graham even assigned two of King’s clerical compatriots, Thomas Kilgore and Gardner Taylor, when the crusade began in the month of May.[1]  As the crusade progressed into July,  Graham publicly denounced segregation when he preached from the steps of Sandy Ray’s Cornerstone Baptist Church and called for anti-segregation legislation; Ray was an African American who became Martin Luther King Sr.’s closest friend when they both attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.[2]  On July 18, Graham further enhanced this message when he invited King to speak onstage during an event at Madison Square Garden.[1]  As Rick Blaine famously claimed at the end of Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The preachers in action

A beginning of a beautiful friendship

Though groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and had participated in actions such as sit-ins and Freedom Rides, the amount of civil disobedience which Dr King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), participated in did not even escalate until the Kennedy Administration.  The Albany Movement, which was centered in Albany, Georgia and took place soon after the Freedom Rides ended in 1961, was widely acknowledged as the SCLC’s first major nonviolent campaign for civil rights and was the prototype for the event which pressured President Kennedy to publicly, though not privately, push for Civil Rights, the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  However, the Albany Movement was organized by SNCC. Though the SCLC had organized the infamous Birmingham Children’s Crusade where Birmingham police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered his police to unleash powerful water hoses and attack dogs against the children protesting segregation in the city, it was because Dr King had assigned an unruly Freedom Rider named James Bevel to do so.  Dr King was clearly not at all a man of civil disobedience, but rather a man of Protestant faith who was loyal to the name his father gave him and sought to advance civil rights by weakening Kennedy’s Catholicism.  During Kennedy’s President, Graham acted as King’s bailer during both the Albany[3} and Birmingham campaigns.[4]

Contrary to what many think, King declined to endorse either Kennedy or Nixon during the 1960 election. [5] Despite early concerns, the FBI did not regard King as a promoter of Communist propaganda until 1962, a time when they were supervised by none other than US Attorney General Robert Kennedy.[6]   After all, it is no surprise why Michael King Sr. decided to unofficially change his and his son’s name to Martin Luther in 1934.

King Sr. was an influential Baptist preacher who had been dubbed “the best paid Negro minister in Atlanta” and had enough influence to join ten other pastors in 1934 for a trip to the Holy Land and Europe, which included a visit to Berlin, Germany, where the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress was being held, despite the fact that the country was now ruled by the esteemed white supremacist Adolf Hitler.  It was here that King Sr. learned about German Protestant reformer Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. [7] Despite the fact that the conference also had 30 black pastors, sympathy for Nazi Germany ran at the convention and was a very troubling experience for King Sr.[8]  Over time, King Sr. grew closer and closer to the ideas of Luther and by 1957, the names of both the father and son were legally changed from Michael to Martin Luther.[8]

Billy Graham, a Southern Democrat who supported Nixon and was especially close to Kennedy’s Vice President Lyndon Johnson, had dedicated his life to eliminating the two things which he felt were obstructing progress in the South: Segregation and Communism.  His method of enhancing civil rights came from using the Cold War consensus to put both anti-Communist segregationists and civil rights activists in the same room.

Despite his Southern upbringing, Graham experienced a major case of enlightenment while attending Bob Jones University.  While there, Graham had become dissatisfied with the school’s fundamentalist interpretation of the bible.[9]  He soon decided to end his time as a student at Bob Jones University after just one semester and went to Tampa, Florida to enroll at the Florida Bible Institute.[9]  Along with his interest for preaching the word on Jesus, Graham also decided to study anthropology and went to Wheaton College, a small, conservative liberal arts school west of Chicago, in 1940, just one year after he was formally ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.[9]  At Wheaton, Graham would have African American socials peers for the first time in his life and became relatively progressive for someone who was raised in a white, southern environment.[10][11]

Some like to claim that Graham’s decision to have segregationist Texas Governor Price Daniel introduce him during a crusade in San Antonio in 1958 signaled a shift in King’s views of Graham.  However , what it mainly did was dash King’s ambitions of holding crusades with Graham in the Southern states.[12]  Being enlightened from his experience in Nazi Berlin, King Sr. realized there was a major opportunity to advance the cause of Civil Rights in the anti-Catholic Southern states.



As tensions were rising in the America in the 1960s of the Civil Rights Movement, The Vietnam War, and the schism between The Establishment and the younger generation, a new peaceful voice was need to promote inter-religious unity. King and Rabbi Heschel, with support of many other religious leaders, sought to forge the alliance that was needed to quell tensions amongst all Americans, young and old, black and white, Christian and Jew

The strategy of King Sr was to enlighten Catholics into secular thinking, and keep the South a strongly Baptist region, to advance the cause of Civil Rights.  Things, however, turned differently when not only Catholics, but Jews and other religious groups took up the banner of Civil Rights put forward by both Kings, Jr. and Sr.  King Jr.  also spoke at the Beth Emet Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois in 1958[13] and five years later, he and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, unknowingly, both used the same passage from the Prophet Amos to bring their points of view into focus, which lead to a brief first meeting at the National Conference on Religion and Race which took place in Chicago on January 14, 1963.[14]  Ten months later, the beginning of major collaboration between the two started at the United Synagogue of America’s Golden Jubilee Convention in New York on November 19.[15]  Heschel would stand alongside King during the iconic March from Selma to Montgomery which took place in March of 1965[15] and also accompanied him when he gave the infamous Beyond Vietnam anti-war speech in New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 as well.[16]   Through Graham, black and whites of different denominations were starting to work together on Civil Rights.  King brought Jews and even more diverse denominations into the struggle for those same Civil Rights.  The tale of these two preachers is extraordinary and a cornerstone of our country’s movement towards not only Civil Rights, but human rights.





  1. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_graham_william_franklin_1918/

2. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_ray_sandy_frederick_1898_1979.1.html

3. http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/theme/2179

4. Long, Michael G. ed (2008), ”The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections on America’s Greatest Evangelist”, pp. 150–151.

5. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_kennedy_john_fitzgerald_1917_1963/index.html

6. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_federal_bureau_of_investigation_fbi/index.html

7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/17/martin-luther-king-jr-name_n_6481554.html

8. http://www.german-way.com/notable-people/featured-bios/martin-luther-king-jr-in-berlin/

9. http://www.wheaton.edu/ISAE/Hall-of-Biography/Billy-Graham

10. http://www.wheaton.edu/Media-Center/Wheaton-Magazine/Winter-2013/Feature-Articles/Billy

11. https://books.google.com/books?id=ICb6I8wWrMgC&pg=PA33&lpg=PA33&dq=wheaton+college+billy+graham+african+american+friends&source=bl&ots=t6Y-tPzbgt&sig=YBd7WF8_TdhPbo4B5QCSYSqRXpc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiuqZCmusHPAhUi3YMKHTyDBy84ChDoAQg9MAY#v=onepage&q=wheaton%20college%20billy%20graham%20african%20american%20friends&f=false

12. https://books.google.com/books?id=WBKaYVni9Z8C&pg=PA92

13. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/158486/mlk-synagogue-speech

14. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-marla-robbins/martin-luther-king-abraham-heschel_b_8929718.html

15. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_heschel_abraham_joshua_1907_1972.1.html

16. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_beyond_vietnam_4_april_1967/index.html

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