Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gary Scott Smith
Gary Scott Smith is the retired chair of the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of Suffer the Children (2017), Religion in the Oval Office (Oxford University Press, 2015), Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush, (Oxford University Press, 2009), Religion in the Oval Office, and Heaven in the American Imagination, (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed when he stepped from his second-floor hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, to speak to Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) colleagues standing in the parking lot below. An assassin’s bullet ended the life of the 39-year-old activist who had helped advance the cause of African-American rights more in 14 years than it had progressed in the previous 350 years.
King’s life and legacy are remarkable. His shrewd strategy of non-violent protest, charismatic personality, electrifying speaking ability, and soaring words mobilized the black community, challenged centuries of oppression, and changed America. Inspired by his faith, the Baptist minister helped direct the Montgomery Bus boycott initiated by Rosa Parks in 1955, helped found and led the SCLC, organized numerous marches and sit-ins, and penned five books. His 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech delivered to 250,000 people at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in August 1963 detailed the plight of America’s blacks and helped reduced racial discrimination. His sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” preached at the Mason Temple in Memphis, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the night before his death ranks with John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as among America’s most famous.
King had initially planned to speak at Williston Senior High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, on April 4 to support Reginald Hawkins, a dentist and civil rights advocate, who was the first African-American gubernatorial candidate in the state’s history. King then planned to stump in other North Carolina cities on Hawkins’ behalf. Instead King decided to stay in Memphis to support the strike of predominantly black sanitation workers who were protesting their low wages and deplorable working conditions. There he declared in his April 3 sermon, perhaps having a premonition of his death, and paraphrasing Moses, “[God has] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.”
On April 5, about 200 black Williston students peacefully marched to the downtown New Hanover County Courthouse to hold a prayer service in memory of King. Another group of students went to nearby New Hanover High School to demand that the white school’s American flag be lowered to half-mast.
Enraged by King’s murder, blacks throughout the nation rioted. Violence erupted in more than 100 cities, killing 40 people and causing extensive property damage. One hundred thousand soldiers and national guardsmen joined local police to battle arsonists, looters, and snipers; thousands of people were arrested.
President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed a national day of mourning on April 7. In response to King’s death, many schools, museums, public libraries, and businesses closed and the Academy Awards ceremony scheduled for April 8 and numerous sporting events were postponed. On April 8, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, her three oldest children, movie stars, religious leaders, and thousands of other Americans marched in Memphis to honor the slain activist and support the sanitation workers.
King’s funeral service, held the next day at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where both King and his father served as ministers, was attended by many prominent politicians and civil rights leaders, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ralph Bunche. Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, from which King had graduated, gave the eulogy, declaring that King “would probably say” that “there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors.” After the service, more than 100,000 mourners followed two mules as they pulled King’s coffin on an old farm wagon through the streets of Atlanta.
King’s accomplishments are well known. King’s inspiring books, mesmerizing speeches, creative leadership of the SCLC, and direction of the civil rights movement won him the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize (the youngest recipient to that date). His work also helped pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited racial segregation in employment, schools, and public accommodations and mandated that voter-registration requirements be applied equally to all races.
What is less remembered about King is that his Christian convictions inspired his civil rights activism. The Baptist pastor’s faith played the pivotal role in his fervent quest for political and social change. “Before I was a civil rights leader,” King declared in a sermon, “I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling” and it “remains my greatest commitment.” Everything “I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.”
King was especially motivated by the example of Jesus’ selfless love and his charge to love others as we love ourselves. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, King asserted, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” As we remember King’s life and contributions and continue to combat racism, poverty, and violence, may we pray that truth and love prevail. *
A Tribute to Billy Graham
Gary S. Smith
Gary Scott Smith is the retired chair of the history department at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pennsylvania, and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of Suffer the Children (2017), Religion in the Oval Office (Oxford University Press, 2015), Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2009), Religion in the Oval Office and Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Overstating the significance of Billy Graham is difficult. Arguably the most important religious leader of the 20th century, Graham presented the gospel to an estimated 215 million people through his many evangelistic campaigns around the world and to hundreds of millions more through radio, television, satellite broadcasts, print, and the Internet. The pastor to presidents, Graham served as a spiritual advisor to chief executives from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. As depicted in an episode of the Netflix miniseries, “The Crown,” Graham also provided spiritual counsel to Queen Elizabeth II of England.
Graham helped launch three major enterprises — the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Christianity Today magazine, and Youth for Christ, a ministry to high school students. He helped shape numerous evangelical colleges, seminaries, and parachurch organizations including World Vision, World Relief, and the National Association of Evangelicals. Graham also worked to bring the global Christian community together and to promote evangelistic efforts through international conferences held in Berlin, Lausanne, and Amsterdam.
Graham was as close being to a national pastor as the United States has ever had. He spoke at Richard Nixon’s funeral in 1994, prayed at the inaugurations of five presidents, at a memorial service following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and at a service in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. for victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and preached to survivors of Hurricane Katrina in 2006.
Throughout American history revivalists have helped win countless individuals to Christ. Graham followed a pattern established during the antebellum Second Great Awakening by Charles Finney — and continued by Dwight Moody in the Gilded Age and Billy Sunday in the early 20th century — of holding evangelistic meetings for a week or more in major cities. Modern technology enabled Graham to proclaim the Christian message of salvation to many more people than any other preacher in history. Unlike his predecessors, Graham also held campaigns in metropolitan areas around the world, including many behind the Iron Curtain before the fall of Communism. Moreover, Graham spread God’s word through his “Hour of Decision” global radio program and numerous prime-time television specials.
Among the three million converts Graham’s preaching produced are John Guest, a founder of the Coalition for Christian Outreach and the rector of two major Pittsburgh congregations, and Louis Zamperini, the protagonist of the book and movie “Unforgiven.”
Many lesser-known individuals also came to Christ through Graham’s campaigns. Consider one example. In 2008 my wife and I spent three weeks in Romania volunteering with a ministry called “Least of These,” which had worked for 15 years to help orphans and Gypsies. We stayed with a Romanian couple; the wife, Ramona, directed the ministry, and her husband, Ghita, pastored a church. Surprisingly, Nicolae Ceaușescu, one of Communism’s most brutal dictators, permitted Graham to hold a week-long crusade in Romania in June 1985. Growing up in Romania, Ghita knew nothing about Christianity, but he was intrigued by a billboard he read advertising the campaign and decided to attend. As he heard Graham preach, God tugged at his heart, and Ghita responded to the altar call and accepted Christ as his Savior. His commitment to Christ led him to study at a Bible school and go into the ministry to advance the gospel in Romania.
While financial and sexual scandals rocked the world of televangelists and sexual abuse cases abounded among Catholic priests, Graham stood as a model of integrity. Graham honored his promise never to be alone with a woman other than his wife, and the finances of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association were open for inspection. During his six decades of ministry, he faced no serious accusations of misconduct of any kind.
In his more than 400 crusades held on six continents from 1947 to 2005, Graham preached the same basic message. He insisted that to have their sins forgiven, enjoy an intimate relationship with God, and go to heaven, individuals must accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and be born again. Graham repeatedly asserted that the Bible provided answers to every human problem and satisfied every human longing.
Graham strove to live fully “sold out” to God. While he had flaws, Graham’s life and legacy are impressive. Critics complained that his message was overly simplistic, protested that he did not speak out forcefully enough on issues such as racism and poverty, and denounced his support of the Vietnam War and opposition to feminism.
Nevertheless, Graham was regularly ranked near the top of the most admired people in the world and received many honors at home and abroad including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary knighthood from Elizabeth II.
Graham’s influence will continue through the millions of lives he helped transform, the thousands of Christian leaders and evangelists he inspired, and the work of the BGEA. The association still sponsors evangelistic campaigns, trains many evangelists, publishes Decision magazine, and sends chaplains to areas recovering from natural disasters.
The evangelist declared, “One day you’ll hear that Billy Graham has died. Don’t you believe it. On that day I’ll be more alive than ever before! I’ve just changed addresses.” As the author of a book about angels and three about heaven, Graham is well prepared to enjoy his new address. *