On July 18, 1957, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—gave a public prayer at Madison Square Garden as part of the long-running Billy Graham evangelistic campaign.
In an earlier interview with historian and Graham biographer Grant Wacker, I asked him about the background of this development by Graham to address racial justice through his ministry. He responded:
Till then, his racial justice efforts were mostly memorable for starting to de-segregate his crusade audiences in 1953 (possibly 1952). In the context of the early 1950s, insisting that he would not tolerate segregated audiences was a momentous and courageous step. One Graham biographer, generally not sympathetic to him, called it his “handsomest hour.” But 1953 was not 1957. “Time makes ancient truth uncouth,” the poet James Russell Lowell had said. Graham knew that he had to do more.
From the beginning at the Garden, Graham saw that his audiences were overwhelmingly white. A few days in, he contacted his black friend Howard Jones, the pastor of a large African-American Christian Missionary Alliance church in Cleveland, and asked what he should do about it. Jones advised, Do not wait for blacks to come to you. You need to go to them. The sub-text was clear: you and everything else about your crusade—associates, artists, music, choir, and congregation—present a virtually solid white front. If blacks are hesitant to come, what would you expect?
Inviting King—the most prominent black Christian in America—was a logical next step.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott—led by King—had ended just seven months earlier, in December 1956.
The two men were different, obviously in many ways.
King was 5’7″. Graham was 6’2″.
Both were Southerners. King, the son of a pastor, was born in Atlanta, Georgia; Graham was reared on his family’s dairy farm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.
King was 28 years old at the time. Graham was 38.
King would not live to see his 40th birthday before being murdered by a lone assassin in 1968. Graham lived to be 99, dying in 2018.
On July 5, Graham and King had a telephone conversation, and afterward, Graham associate (and brother-in-law) Leighton Ford wired a telegram to King officially inviting him to pray at the crusade. King accepted the invitation three days later.
On Thursday, July 18, Graham introduced him to the assembly, saying,
A great social revolution is going on in the United States today.
Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out of his busy schedule to come and share this service with us tonight.
King prayed as follows:
Let us pray.
O God, our Heavenly Father—out of whose mind this great cosmic universe has been created, toward whom the weary and perplexed of all generations turn for consolation and direction—we come before Thy presence this evening thanking Thee for the many blessings of life.
We come recognizing our dependence on Thee.
We also come, O God, with an awareness:
The fact that we have not always given our lives to that which is high and noble.
In the midst of all of the high and noble aspects of justice,
we followed injustice.
We stand amid the forces of truth,
and yet we deliberately lie.
We stand amid the compelling urgency of the Lord of love, as exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ,
and yet we live our lives so often in the dungeons of hate.
For all of these sins, O God, forgive.
And in these days of emotional tension—when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail—give us penetrating vision, broad understanding, power of endurance, and abiding faith, and save us from the paralysis of crippling fear.
And O God, we ask Thee to help us to work with renewed vigor for a warless world and for a brotherhood that transcends race or color.
We thank Thee this evening for the marvelous things which have been done in this city, and through the dynamic preachings of this great evangelist.
And we ask Thee, O God, to continue blessing him. Give him continued power and authority.
And as we look into him tonight, grant that our hearts and spirit will be opened to the divine inflow.
All of these things we ask, in the name of Him who taught us to pray.
Our Father [audience also begins to pray],
who art in heaven,
hallowed be Thy name. . . .
[Audience continues prayer without King.]
You can hear some of the audio in the following clip: