Remembering Billy Graham's trips through Alabama

Remembering Billy Graham's trips through Alabama
Billy Graham delivers an Easter message of peace and good will in Birmingham March 29, 1964 to the largest integrated ever assembled in Alabama. An estimated 35,000 persons poured into Legion Field for the Crusade for Christ. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
A June 16, 1965 Montgomery Advertiser article showing Billy Graham and Alabama Gov. George Wallace. (Source: Alabama Dept. of Archives)
A June 16, 1965 Montgomery Advertiser article showing Billy Graham and Alabama Gov. George Wallace. (Source: Alabama Dept. of Archives)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The nation and world are reflecting on the life of the Rev. Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at his North Carolina home at age 99.

Graham preached the gospel to millions over seven decades. When he spoke, he filled sports stadiums across the globe. Wherever he went, he drew large crowds, and his trips to Alabama during the racially fraught times of the 1960s were no exception.

It was a Sunday morning in September 1963, months before Graham was to deliver a Crusade at Birmingham's Legion Field. A bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little black girls.

The detonation, which helped give Birmingham the ominous nickname "Bombingham," rattled the nation to attention regarding the growing racial unrest in the Deep South.

Graham could have easily pulled out of his pending trip, planned for Easter 1964, but he resisted threats and continued on as planned with an integrated event.

"The Ku Klux Klan went around and knocked out our signs," Graham is quoted as saying on the website of the Billy Graham Evangelist Association. "The State Police had to send policemen with us wherever we went—before my car and after my car. The police were also in the rooms around me because they were afraid we would get shot."

The BGEA, which documents many of Graham's public events, said the peaceful crowd of black and white citizens numbered 30,000 and was the first ever such event in Alabama history.

It wouldn't be Graham's last trip to Alabama. In 1965, black residents marching from Selma to Montgomery found themselves beaten by police and attacked by police dogs, another ugly situation that grabbed the nation's attention.

President Lyndon Johnson urged Graham to return to Alabama, which he agreed to do. His sermons found listening ears at Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Tuskegee University and in Dothan.

In April of that year, Graham was introduced to a crowd of about 17,000 at Auburn's Cliff Hare Stadium. At the time, it was the largest ever crowd to gather there for a religious event. Although he didn't refer directly to the integration of Alabama's public schools during the 25-minute sermon, he later predicted the state would solve its racial problems and that it might set the pace for the rest of the nation.

In Dothan, Graham didn't let rain heavy rains ruin his revival. With an integrated crowd of 3,000 gathered beneath the stadium's risers, he continued his preaching of the gospel without mention of race. He later spoke on TV for those who couldn't make it to the stadium.

Alabama got another dose of Graham's preaching within months when he canceled a vacation to Europe and set up a 10-day crusade at Montgomery's Cramton Bowl. The BGEA says nearly 100,000 attended and more than 4,000 accepted Christ.

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