Martin Luther King and His Partner in the Cause
Happy MLK Day, a day in the States dedicated to the memory of the life and cause of one of America’s great leaders toward justice and equality for all Americans. His influence, of course, has spread far beyond America too. Behind a microphone and standing in front of a crowd, Martin Luther King Jr.’s gifts came alive, stirring millions with his voice, inspiring through eloquent words and living illustrations. All of those gifts are on display in his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in DC on August 28, 1963. Pastor John, I know you have been thinking a lot about King, King the preacher. I’d love for you to share with us on this MLK Day some of your thoughts. What’s on your mind?
Tony, I’m teaching a class on preaching right now, which I love doing. As I’ve been pondering whom these young men should listen to for models of preaching, it struck me that Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham are probably the two most powerful preachers of the second half of the twentieth century — and maybe we could say the whole twentieth century.
Billy Graham was riveting to listen to, with a kind of directness and decisiveness and simplicity and authority that could hold twentieth-century people, from 1949 to 2009, spellbound for 45 minutes in crowds of fifty thousand — or up to a million in Seoul, Korea. It was absolutely incredible what force and power this man had when he stood behind a pulpit.
“Jesus does not belong to America but to the world; therefore, to belong to Jesus is also to belong to the world.”
Then, of course, there’s Martin Luther King’s power and pathos and intensity and skillfulness and graphic imagery and artistic diction, for example, at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, the “I Have a Dream” speech, and that unbelievably weighty moment on the evening of April 3, 1968, the very last message that he gave, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” If you know the background to that speech and the way the evening was unfolding, it becomes all the more amazing, because he hadn’t planned to go there and give that talk. So, it was mainly out of his heart.
These two men were giants of rhetorical gifting, but neither one gave the impression that he was performing. They were not trying to draw attention to their oratory. They were blood-earnest about the cause they were living for.
So, I poked around a little more and found biographers who referred to the relationship between Martin Luther King and Billy Graham, and then I found an interview between Paul Harvey and Billy Graham at his home in North Carolina, in which Billy recounts some of the details of his relationship with Martin Luther King and his traveling with King to Latin America.
Now, these two men were not on the same theological page — not by a long shot. And they were not on the same page culturally or experientially. I don’t doubt that in significant ways, Martin Luther King — probably gently, but really — looked at Billy Graham and thought of him as fairly naive about the depth and complexity of the experience of African Americans, and the obstacles confronting them in the 1950s and ’60s, not to mention the decades before.
But (and it’s a very big but) they said some remarkably positive things about each other’s ministry. Paul Harvey asked Billy Graham how he could just go on preaching the simple gospel when America was blowing up over the civil-rights controversies of the 1950s and ’60s. Harvey said to Graham, “So, why isn’t Billy Graham on the picket lines with Martin Luther King?” (This is a quote I typed off of the YouTube interview, so I got the wording exactly right.) Billy said,
I talked to Martin Luther King many times about that. I called him Mike. I said, “Mike, I’ll stay in the stadiums and make them integrated through the South [this was back in the ’50s], and you go ahead on the streets and do your thing.” We went to Latin America together, and he made the statement while we were in Brazil at a dinner that, if it had not been for my work, his would have been much more difficult. We demanded integration almost from the beginning of our meetings in the South. And as a result, I think that this laid a groundwork at that time. Now today, it’s almost impossible for the present generation to understand what things were in those days, and what it took to be that way, and how many threatening letters we got, and how many threats against my family as a result of the stand we took at that time [to demand the crusades be integrated].
One biographer wrote that he held crusades in Little Rock in 1959 and in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1964, not long after the racial tensions erupted there. Howard Jones recalls King telling Graham, “Your crusades have done more to help race relations than anything else I know.”
‘Jesus Was Not a White Man’
Now, here are a couple observations that I would draw out as perhaps implications for our situation. Two things accompanied Graham’s simple, straightforward, powerful, decisive, confrontational gospel message about sin, salvation, and faith. One was that he absolutely refused to hold a crusade that was not integrated. This he did across the South. This was simply unheard of in those days. The church I grew up in at that time — this is 1960, ’61, ’62 — didn’t even allow blacks in the services, to our great shame. So, that’s the first thing: he took a decisive stand on a particularly pressing indignity, and that accompanied his simple gospel preaching.
The second thing that accompanied this simple gospel message was that punctuating his message time after time regularly in this explosive season — you can find them online and see more than once how he says the almost identical words, eyeball to eyeball, looking into the camera, “Jesus was not a white man.” This is a direct quote from a YouTube clip:
[Jesus] was not a white man. He was not a black man. He came from that part of the world that touches Africa and Asia and Europe. . . . Christianity is not a white man’s religion. [It’s not a black man’s religion.] And don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world.
“Let’s let Martin Luther King Day give us an impulse for what Billy Graham called ‘the great mosaic of the human race.’”
Now, that note he struck just very briefly; it took him a minute to say that, or two minutes if he expanded it. He struck that note in the midst of his simple gospel message again and again into a very explosive situation, because that message is part of the New Testament global relevance of Jesus for all the peoples. That’s not an extraneous thing tacked on to the gospel if you read the New Testament and its global definition of Christ’s purpose in the cross. In the context of the 1950s, that message combined with the integration of his crusades could get his family killed.
He said in an interview with Harvey, “I don’t think of myself any longer as an American citizen.” And he added, quietly, “only.” That’s good. That’s true. “I think of myself as a world citizen. I’ve traveled all over the world a great deal, and I feel that I am part of a great mosaic of the human race that God has created, each made in his image, each needing the gospel of Christ, each having the same basic problems and desires and longings, and I’m part of this mosaic.”
‘Great Mosaic of the Human Race’
Now, I’m assuming, Tony, that virtually everybody who listens to APJ — I’m sure there are exceptions, but most people who listen to Ask Pastor John — love the gospel of Jesus Christ, love Christ-exalting ethnic diversity in the body of Christ, love true justice in all of society, love God’s grace that goes beyond justice, love the truth of God’s word, love the power of the Holy Spirit that conquers sin in our lives, and love the global glory of Jesus Christ. It’s that last note that I want to trumpet on this Martin Luther King Day: the global glory — you could call it the pan-ethnic glory — of Jesus. The note that both MLK — most people don’t realize how international MLK’s vision was — and Billy Graham struck is this: Jesus does not belong to America but to the world; therefore, to belong to Jesus is also to belong to the world.
The more Billy Graham walked with Jesus among the peoples of the world, the less distinctly American he felt, the less decisively defined he was by his nation and his ethnicity or his race. A spirit of confined, narrow, limited parochialism that has no glad heart, no biblical heart for the thousands of peoples of the world, is going to be missing one of the great healing impulses for ethnic challenges in our day here in America, or wherever you live around the world.
Let’s let Martin Luther King Day give us an impulse for what Billy Graham called “the great mosaic of the human race.” It will make a great difference in our lives and in our ministries.