Easter in Birmingham

BLESSED BE THE LORD GOD, THE GOD OF ISRAEL,

WHO ONLY DOES WONDROUS THINGS.

— PSALM 72:18

~ STEPS TO HEAVEN ~

Hammer hammer hammer

stadium crew

six hours to go

so much to do.

Fresh clean lumber

ten-penny nails

Steps to Jesus

with handrails.

Steps to the green turf

sacred sod

home of the Giants

home of God.

Thousands coming

to hear the man

offering Jesus

God's great plan.

Walk ye the way

walk ye the walk

Christ wants action

not just talk.

Test those risers

make them hold,

I have a son

twenty years old;

He needs help

and he just might

walk these steps

to heaven tonight.

                                     — S.E.W.

Late in March 1964, I rode with Billy and one or two colleagues from the Billy Graham Minneapolis headquarters to the Twin Cities International Airport to give our boss a send-off. Billy had an Easter preaching date in Birmingham, Alabama, on March 29 that promised to be history-making, and we wanted to offer him our prayers and support. What brought it all about was an issue as complex as it was volatile.

    A reporter from the St. Paul Post-Dispatch joined us at the airport, and Billy gave him a brief interview as we stood in the waiting room. The reporter asked a highly significant question: "When people come forward at your meeting seeking salvation, will you permit black counselors to talk to the white inquirers and pray with them?"

    In 1964 black Christians still did not customarily counsel white people at evangelistic gatherings in the southern part of the United States. White Christians accepted such a custom as normal behavior, feeling it would avoid "giving offense" to the inquirers.

    I heard Billy's simple answer: "Our counselors will be instructed to conduct themselves toward inquirers in Birmingham in the same way as they have been instructed in our meetings all over the world. There will be no difference." Period!

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    Birmingham in 1964 was the leading industrial city of the south. From the day of its founding in 1870, the steel metropolis had been divided racially. Blacks were considered inferior and were treated as such by the governing authority. By the end of World War II, during which American Negro troops performed with exceptional valor, attitudes were changing. Voices in the south clamored increasingly for a breakdown of racial barriers and an end to inequality in the official treatment of black and white citizens.

    "Separate-but-equal" schools for blacks had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. The tragic bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963 killed four black Sunday school children. No perpetrators were ever found, but an outcry of protest rang out across the nation. The civic leaders and power brokers of Birmingham, as well as much of the white citizenry, knew that something had to be done. America was now different. A change in racial policy was overdue.

    The leaders knew very well that their city should abolish discriminatory civic laws, but they wondered how and when to do it. During this period Billy Graham made a gracious offer to come to the city and conduct an evangelistic rally on Easter Sunday in 1964. The clergy as a whole favored his coming, and the civic leaders thought, Why not do it then? Billy was popular in Birmingham (as everywhere else), and his services had been integrated for years. The churches of Birmingham were urged to accept Billy's offer to conduct an integrated evangelistic rally in Legion Field similar to those he had led around the world. The city fathers believed correctly that such a meeting would relieve tension in the populace. Separate drinking fountains, separate toilets, separate seating in public places, and other symbols of government-approved discrimination would then quietly disappear.

    To their credit, the civic leaders and pastors saw Billy's Easter Sunday offer as a way to introduce integration on a high spiritual note. They planned the God-honoring rally as the first desegregated public gathering in Birmingham's history.

    On March 28, the day before Easter, I arrived in Birmingham in time to attend a reception for the team. Some of the crusade committee

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members were present, and I had the pleasure of meeting the Reverend J.L. Ware. He was a prominent committeeman and pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, one of the largest black churches in the city. It was clear that Birmingham's black community was identifying solidly with Billy Graham and his ministry.

    Billy's own record spoke for itself. His meetings had open seating. He had traveled to Brazil in company with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and had invited Dr. King to lead in prayer at the 1957 crusade in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Two dedicated black evangelists, Dr. Howard Jones and Dr. Ralph Bell, were members of his evangelistic team and were preaching everywhere.

    As Dr. Ware and I chatted informally, I mentioned to him that I had served as chaplain to colored troops in World War II (before desegregation of the military) and would love to visit his church.1 He politely told me I would be welcome.

    Going to Birmingham took courage on Billy's part. It was by no means clear that Birmingham's white community as a whole approved the new policy. On the day before Easter, the city was extremely tense. Memories of lynchings were not that old. In common conversation people voiced fears of a race riot. Followers of Malcolm X uttered threats. A segregated "Citizen's Council" demanded the rally's cancellation. Some churchgoers, fearful of danger, planned to avoid the crusade rally at Legion Field.

    I awoke early on Easter morning, dressed, and went to the hotel lobby. There I learned that several officers on motorcycles were policing the highway between the city center and Legion Field and had made some arrests of young black citizens, mostly for speeding.

    At about nine o'clock I set out on foot with my Bible for Pastor Ware's church. I can't explain why I went, but I knew I had to go. The streets were suspiciously empty. I was fearful, but not because of the police I might meet or the racial problems I might encounter. I was fearful because I did not wish to do anything that would somehow embarrass Billy or hurt his ministry.

    Working for a world-famous person has its risks. The rule in the Minneapolis office was very strict: don't create problems for Dr. Graham. If you have a problem, work it out yourself. He has problems

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much greater than yours. I accepted that rule, for I believed in my heart that I was called to help Billy with his God-given mission and not to tax him with my behavior.

    Timidly I found my way to the church, a huge old wooden structure. I climbed a great many steps and found the doors shut. I knocked, and one door opened a crack.

    "May I come in?" I asked the usher.

    "Go around back," the man pointed with his thumb and closed the door.

    Descending the steps, I walked around to the back of the church. All was still; no one was in sight. It seemed that even the air was electric with fear. I remembered reading how the dreaded "egbo," a mysterious horror, swept through the West African forests where missionary Mary Slessor had launched her solo mission, spreading death and terrifying Ibo women and children until Mary defied it.2 Whatever was in the air in Birmingham, I defied it.

    I went up the back steps, a door opened, and there was Pastor Ware welcoming me inside with a smile. I could hear the congregation singing a gospel tune. "Take a seat here in the vestibule for a few minutes," said the pastor. Mounting a step or two, he opened a door and disappeared into the sanctuary.

    Baffled, I squirmed on a bench for several minutes while the singing continued. This was not what I wished. I had no statement to make. I was not there to represent Billy Graham. I just wanted to come to church anonymously as a lover of Jesus and worship in a back pew with fellow Christians and then leave. In fact, I was ready to leave now.

    Suddenly Pastor Ware appeared and held open the door. "Brother," he said, "the pulpit is yours!"

    Mine? What did he mean? With my head swimming and my mind blank, I walked into the sanctuary and sat on the platform as the singing continued.

    What I said from the pulpit that morning after being introduced is pretty much a vacuity. I know that I spoke again of my Air Force chaplaincy with colored troops in the segregated "Squadron C" at Hamilton Field, California, nineteen years earlier. I probably told

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them how we converted an empty barracks into a well-attended chapel and how a "GI" artist painted a dark-complexioned Jesus on the wall behind the communion table. On Sunday evenings I used military vehicles to take black soldiers to church services.3 I do actually remember telling them that the Congregational church in which I was brought up in California continually preached on love and friendship between black and white people, and practiced it, and that the church's message had sunk deep into my heart as a boy and never left.

    What Scripture I used, what Easter message I brought, if any, I have forgotten. After all, I was just a visitor to the church. But you can be sure I told them that Billy Graham was a friend who loved them, and in the name of the risen Christ, I invited them all to come out that afternoon to hear Billy preach the Gospel in Legion Field. I said they would find a warm welcome and that the seating was open to all.

    As I was finishing and before I sat down, I watched a tiny girl in her Sunday dress toddle out into the aisle and come toward me. She was holding up her hand as if to greet me. I was on an elevated three-foot platform and had to come the edge and stoop down to

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take her hand, which I did. She smiled. If she said something, I didn't catch it.

    While I was bending over, another little girl came up waving her hand at me — then another child, a little boy. I looked up and saw children leaving their parents and coming from every direction to where I was standing, two dozen or more. They clustered around me smiling. In a long lifetime, it was the most beautiful expression of love I have ever seen. My eyes filled with tears; I could not speak; and still they came.

    At last I finished shaking hands with the little ones and sat down, an emotional wreck. I don't remember what happened after that. I believe the pastor must have stepped to the podium and thanked the children and their parents and then delivered his message.

    Later that day I made my way to Legion Field. On the track surrounding the turf, I saw policemen in uniform and state troopers in plainclothes stationed every ten feet. They remained there during the service and the invitation. No one seemed to pay attention to them, for it was a wonderful Easter afternoon of peace and joy, and even the officers seemed to have a good time. The singing, the

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preaching of the Gospel, the whole atmosphere was like a foretaste of heaven.

    The world took note of what happened that day in Alabama's chief city. The international press carried the news that the largest interracial crowd in the history of the state had met and dispersed without incident. Columns were devoted to the racial harmony in the choir, the corps of ushers, and the platform party, which included members of the city council.

    Billy Graham told the crowd, "It is a wonderful thing to gather together like this in the city of Birmingham, in the name of Jesus Christ, on Easter Day. Somehow all our problems and difficulties seem not quite so great when we stand at the foot of the cross and hear Him say, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.' "4

    All this happened over three decades ago. Nearly 35,000 people were present that day, and 4,000 of them came down from the stands of Legion Field to commit their lives to Christ. One of them, a fifteen-year-old white girl, later wrote to Billy Graham, "I hope you will be able to come again to Birmingham for a longer crusade. I believe if more people down here would turn to Christ, all their feelings of prejudice against the Negro would leave them. Mine have. Thank you for everything."

    My guess is that no one who was there in that noble, historic southern city and who is still alive in the nineties has ever forgotten the Easter afternoon in 1964 when the name of God was lifted up by the multitudes at Legion Field, where by the grace of God, Billy Graham broke the color bar at Birmingham forever.

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1. I was assigned to Hamilton Field in Marin Country by Fourth Air Force headquarters in San Francisco, December 1944, and reassigned to the Eleventh Air Force, Asiatic-Pacific Theater, December 1945.

2. Cf. W.P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1925). See also more recent biographies.

3. This was one of the most heartening experiences of my life as we brought folks across the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco's Third Baptist Church every Wednesday evening to conduct services for the troops in our chapel.

4. Luke 23:34 (KJV).

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