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God in America: "The Soul of a Nation"
NARRATOR: In decades following World War II, America would grapple with a question as old as the nation itself, the relationship between religion and politics.
STEPHEN PROTHERO, Professor of Religion, Boston University: I think we've always had a flirtation between religion and politics in American life, from the very beginning, from even before the founding of the republic. But what you get after World War II is really a marriage between the two, where religion and politics are going to be closer and closer intertwined.
NARRATOR: During the economic and political upheavals of the 1930s and '40s, the American religious landscape had shifted. Church attendance had slowed during the years of the Great Depression. The end of World War II promised a return to normalcy. But the jubilation was short-lived. The cold war with the Soviet Union ushered in a new age of anxiety.
As it confronted communism, America would undergo a religious revival. Faith would be linked with patriotism, launching an epic struggle over the nation's political and religious identity.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: What's at stake is the religious narrative of America. How central is religion to the American story? And what is the story that integrates religion and American politics? That's very much up for grabs.
NARRATOR: In the fall of 1949, Billy Graham, a little known preacher who would become a primary engine of America's cold war religious revival, took his crusade to Los Angeles.
GRANT WACKER, Professor of Christian History, Duke University: When he went to Los Angeles, he had just come from a couple of meetings that by his own judgment were unsuccessful. He had been in Baltimore. He had been in Altoona, Pennsylvania. And these revival meetings, at best, represented mixed success. And in his own mind, he questioned his own vocation as an evangelist.
NARRATOR: In Los Angeles, Graham staged his revival in a tent in the heart of downtown, unsure how many people would come to hear his message.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: Now today in America, we find that people are more concerned with things than they are with the things of God! They are more concerned with pleasure, more concerned with money, more concerned with the things of life than they are the things of almighty God!
STEPHEN PROTHERO: He's looking at L.A. and he's saying, you know, this is like Sin City, right? This is the place of, you know, prostitution and the place of drunkenness and the place of fantasy in terms of Hollywood, right? And we need to turn this around.
NARRATOR: Just as the Los Angeles crusade began, came news that stunned the nation.
FRANK LAMBERT, Historian, Purdue University: Much sooner than Americans had thought possible, the Soviet Union tested successfully an atomic bomb, and now the world was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust and Americans were filled with fear. School kids had drills, getting under their desk in the event of a, of an atomic attack. People built atomic shelters. I mean, this was something that was real, and it heightened this sense that we need to turn back to God.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: I believe this sincerely, from the depths of my heart-
NARRATOR: In the Soviet threat, Graham found a powerful new religious message.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: Every time I've been to Europe, I've been more conscious than ever before that unless the Western world has an old-fashioned revival, we are done for! We cannot last! We cannot stand the tremendous strain and stress of future days in our battle with Communism unless we have a spiritual revival!
FRANK LAMBERT: He framed the cold war as a moral conflict. It is evil versus good. It is godless communism versus a God-fearing America.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: I believe today that the battle is between communism and Christianity! And I believe the only way that we're going to win that battle is for America to turn back to God and back to Christ and back to the Bible at this hour! We need a revival!
NARRATOR: Graham's message caught the attention of media baron William Randolph Hearst, a staunch anti-communist.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER, Prof. of American Religious History: Hearst likes Graham's anti-Communist rhetoric, and he instructs his newspapers to "Puff Graham," two of the most famous words in all of American religious history. And this really rockets Graham onto the national stage.
GRANT WACKER: Within a matter of days, stories were carried in Life magazine, Look magazine, Time. And the story went around the world.
FRANK LAMBERT: If you look at the rise of Billy Graham in the 1950s, it's the rise that one usually thinks of in relation to pop music stars. His ascendancy was akin to that of the Beatles.
EDWARD R. MURROW, CBS News: ["Person to Person"] Now, at 37, Billy Graham is the most famous evangelist in the world, and his power of persuasion has softened skeptics who used to call him "the hot gospeller from the Bible Belt," "the Barrymore of the Bible." In between his long tours, Billy Graham goes home for a few days of seclusion with his wife, Ruth, and their four children.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: Over here, Bunny. Ed, this is Bunny over here to my left. Would you say hello to Mr. Murrow?
BUNNY GRAHAM: Hello, Mr. Murrow.
EDWARD R. MURROW: Hello, Bunny.
FRANK LAMBERT: He becomes a spokesperson for the national culture in a way that blends Christianity and patriotism in an appealing way for a lot of people.
NARRATOR: As Graham became a national celebrity, he tried to expand the appeal of his religious revival by building relationships with those in political power.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER: In the 1952 campaign, it somehow emerged that Dwight Eisenhower himself had never been baptized, and he was confronted with this in the course of the campaign. And his response was something to the effect that, "Well, I've been pretty busy lately. As soon as things settle down, I'll get around to it."
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON, Historian of Law & Religion: Graham advised him, "You know, you really should settle on a denomination," and the two of them had conversation back and forth. Mamie Eisenhower had been a Presbyterian, and Graham eventually said, "You know, Presbyterian- great denomination. Why don't you think about becoming a Presbyterian?" And within two weeks of being sworn in as president, Dwight Eisenhower was baptized, confirmed and became a communicant of the Presbyterian church.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER: Graham thought that if he could convert certain well-known individuals, that that would have a greater effect in terms of bringing others into the Kingdom. That would make the Gospel more palatable to others.
NARRATOR: As president, Eisenhower invoked faith as a weapon against communism, just as Billy Graham had done.
Pres. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: It seems to me if we're going to win this fight, we have got to go back to the very fundamentals of all things. And one of them is that we are a religious people. Even those among us who are so- in my opinion, so silly as to doubt the existence of an Almighty, we are still members of a religious civilization.
PHILIP GOFF, Ctr. for Study of Religion and American Culture: You see it in the language of Dwight D. Eisenhower and in the language of Billy Graham, this sense that religion is a sign of democracy. And they marry the two. Very clearly, Eisenhower comes out and says that democracy is, in fact, a public expression, basically, of a deeply felt religion.
And he made a number of appeals to people to attend church. He made clear it doesn't matter which one. That's not important. It's just go to a worship service of whatever faith you are. This was not without effect. By 1960, as he leaves office, church membership in the United States stood at 65 percent. It has never been that high before.
SARAH BARRINGTON GORDON: It was at the New York Avenue Presbyterian church that Eisenhower heard a sermon on adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and from that day forward became an advocate of including the new words. After Eisenhower got behind it, after it got some publicity, the public was so overwhelmingly in favor.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: President Eisenhower arrives at the Post Office Department in Washington for the debut of the stamp, first to proclaim "In God We Trust."
FRANK LAMBERT: It was in that environment, with this cold war, that Congress decided that "In God We Trust" should be the new motto, reclaiming this notion that we're a chosen people and that we were conceived under God and that we flourish under God, and we turn our backs on God at our own peril.
NARRATOR: Nothing demonstrated America's merging of faith and patriotism and the strength of its religious revival more than Billy Graham's 1957 crusade in New York City.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: There's a quiet little voice in your heart that says you better give your life to Christ. Now is the time. That is the voice of-
NARRATOR: Graham booked Madison Square Garden for a six-week campaign. Night after night, the seats were packed and the crusade was extended. It would last more than three months.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: I ask you to give your life to Christ now, tonight, while there's time! The Bible says now is the accepted time, and all the way through the Bible, it's an urgent business, this business of coming to Christ! I'm going to ask you to come and receive him right now. What are you going to do?
FRANK LAMBERT: Billy Graham was primarily interested in saving individuals. The way you save the nation is to save individuals one at a time. And if all Americans would become born-again Christians, from the Billy Graham perspective, then you would have a righteous society.
["The Decade of Decision"]
MAN AT COCKTAIL PARTY: It's a well-organized campaign, all right, real saturation.
NARRATOR: Graham produced a film dramatizing his message that even sophisticated New Yorkers needed to "come to Christ."
WOMAN AT COCKTAIL PARTY: I read somewhere they're using 2,000 or 3,000 voices in just the chorus.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER, Prof. of American Religious History: Graham was especially interested in the people who are at the upper echelons of society, particularly in terms of their cultural influence.
MAN AT COCKTAIL PARTY: Well, I think we ought to have an opinion from our charming hostess. Mrs. Foster, what do you think of this crusade business? Well, honey?
Mrs. FOSTER: Well, all of your comments sound so familiar. But last night, I went to the Garden. I knew I'd been groping for something, but I didn't know what it was until Mr. Graham began to speak. As he talked, I had a strange feeling of need.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: Night after night, I've asked people to bring their Bibles. I hope that many of you brought your Bibles tonight.
NARRATOR: In New York, Graham preached in Times Square, on Wall Street and, in the crusade's biggest event, before a record-breaking crowd of over 100,000 at Yankee Stadium. That night, the cold war embrace between American religion and American politics was on full display as Graham shared his pulpit with Vice President Richard Nixon.
Vice Pres. RICHARD NIXON: One of the most basic reasons for America progress in the past and for our strength today is that from the time of our foundation, we have had a deep and abiding faith in God.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER: Nixon in 1957, of course, is already thinking about the 1960 presidential campaign. So for Nixon, this was a very, very powerful moment, being aligned with none other than Billy Graham.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: You have preachers who draw on politics and politicians who are using religion for their own public policy reasons. And so the sort of wall of separation of church and state that has been around as an option is going to be gradually, gradually whittled away in this period.
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: And I would say to our international problems that the principles of Christ form the only ideology hot enough to stop communism! When communism conquers a nation, it makes every man a slave! When Christianity conquers a nation, it makes every man a king! And it is my prayer-
NARRATOR: But as this cold war convergence of faith and patriotism pervaded the country, some Americans saw it as a threat to their freedom. One of those dissenting voices came from a non-religious family deep in the American heartland, in Champaign, Illinois.
JAMES TERRY McCOLLUM: Champaign was a pretty conservative community at the time. And as a matter of fact, at that time, atheism was equated with communism. So you just didn't be an atheist in those days, or let people know.
NARRATOR: Beginning in the 1940s, Champaign public school students were encouraged to attend classes in religious instruction, led by a member of their faith, on school grounds. If they chose not to, they were left to study alone in an empty room, like 5th grader Terry McCollum.
TERRY McCOLLUM: We would go to the- what was called the music room with a teacher, the regular public school teacher, while the class was going on. And there was a time when the teacher set me out in the hall at a desk, which was usually for detention purposes. Of course, I was there alone, and I didn't take to that too hot. And my mother heard about it. She got rather incensed about it. My mother was not somebody who was looking for a fight, but you didn't mess with her, either.
NARRATOR: Vashti McCollum, a self-described humanist, thought the religious classes program violated her son's rights.
TERRY McCOLLUM: She went to see the superintendent of schools and told him she objected to the program and that she felt it was illegal, and that it was impacting badly on her son and that it should be discontinued. Well, the school board, of course, was very much in favor of the program, so there was nothing that the superintendent could do about it.
NARRATOR: Vashti McCollum sued the school board.
[newspaper headline: "Sue to stop city schools' Bible hour"]
NARRATOR: In the local Illinois court, she argued it was unconstitutional for public schools to impose religion on anyone.
[newspaper headlines: "Atheist loses court fight against school," "Religion declared needed in school"]
NARRATOR: She lost the case, then appealed to the state supreme court, where she lost again. And local hostility toward her family grew.
TERRY McCOLLUM: Well, we had a cat that was lynched. We had things thrown at the house. My mother answered the door one time and was deluged in a shower of garbage. We got some really juicy hate mail. We had a letter that was addressed simply to "That Atheist Woman," no address, and the Postal Service delivered it.
NARRATOR: The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Justices overturned the Illinois courts and ruled for the McCollums. The 8-to-1 decision invoked Thomas Jefferson's interpretation that the 1st Amendment erected a "wall of separation" between church and state.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON, University of Pennsylvania: The court said that it was unconstitutional to use the machinery of the public school, to use the property of the public school to enforce religious educational ideals of the parents or of the children's denomination. It certainly was appropriate for a child to get a religious education, but not for the government to be providing it on public school property.
TERRY McCOLLUM: There was a lot of hostility to that ruling, a lot of hostility. One publication said little Terry McCollum now has the right to go to hell. So I don't think, at that time, it liberalized anything, except for the law.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The Supreme Court is saying, you know, "This may not fit with the American narrative, with the American mythology about this as a nation ordained by God, but in terms of 1st Amendment protections for minorities, that atheists have the same protections that other minorities have."
NARRATOR: It would take a series of Supreme Court rulings over several years to more fully define the role of religion in the public schools.
TEACHER: I shall read Psalm 111. "Praise the Lord. I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart"-
STEPHEN PROTHERO, Boston University: Schools have always been a place where we inculcated this religious sensibility and where we made the connection between Christianity and morality and citizenship. Especially after World War II, in the cold war, with the specter of the communist, the atheistic communists, it became really important to do religion in the public schools and not teach about religion, not world religions courses, or you know, objective Bible courses, but to pray.
STUDENTS: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name-
NARRATOR: The decisive battle over school prayer began in a New York suburb after the state recommended an official non-denominational prayer for school children to recite.
BRUCE DIERENFIELD, Historian, Canisius College: The New York State Board of Regents convened a group of ministers, priests and rabbis to prepare a prayer at the height of the cold war. And this prayer was going to inoculate children against communism, atheism.
SCHOOL CHILDREN: Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee and we beg thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country. Amen.
BRUCE DIERENFIELD: Nobody questioned it. Twenty-two words- who could object to that?
NARRATOR: But opposition to the prayer did surface among several Jewish families who had recently moved to Long Island.
BRUCE DIERENFIELD: The real crux of the matter came down to one particular elementary school that most Jews went to.
LAWRENCE ROTH, Parent: My immediate reaction was that the state and the school board had no right to impose religion or prayers on the school children.
BRUCE DIERENFIELD: Lawrence Roth learned that his children, Dan and Joe, were forced to say prayers, that there was a statue of Jesus in one of the classrooms. He said, "I didn't bring our family out here to endure this."
NARRATOR: Roth recruited dozens of parents who also objected to the prayer, and ultimately, five families sued the school district.
BRUCE DIERENFIELD: The issue for all of them was fundamentally that to be an American means that you don't have to be subjected to religious ideas and practices sponsored by the state that you find objectionable.
NARRATOR: In court, attorneys for the parents and for the school district argued the true meaning of the 1st Amendment, arguments they restaged for CBS news cameras.
WILLIAM BUTLER, Attorney for Parents: We come here in the spirit of Madison and Jefferson, in the conviction, the deep conviction that the religious liberty not only of our clients but of all Americas lies in the principle of law set forth in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, which says that Congress shall make now law respecting an establishment of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof.
BERTRAM DAIKER, Attorney for School District: The intention at that time was to prevent the establishment of a state church, or a national church. It was not in any way intended to interfere with the religious freedoms of all of our people.
NARRATOR: In the local court, the school district won its case, and then won again in the New York state appeals courts. But when the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962, the Justices ruled 6 to 1 for the parents, banning prayer in public schools nationwide.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON, Legal scholar, University of Pennsylvania: The Supreme Court said the government simply cannot be in the business of providing religion. This was ground-level constitutional decision-making affecting the way public schools across the country design education for their students. So this was- this was a massive change.
Rep. FRANK BECKER (R), New York: I think that this decision is most deplorable. It is tragic. I think that June 25, 1962, will go down as the blackest day in the history of the United States.
SARAH BARRINGTON GORDON: The school prayer decision was in its day the most unpopular decision the Supreme Court had ever made.
Sen. JAMES EASTLAND (D), Mississippi: You know, it's a terrible thing to say that you can't have prayer in the schools of this country. Isn't the number one- one the of number one objectives of atheistic communism the destruction of the religious and spiritual life of this country?
Rev. BILLY GRAHAM: I think there's a tremendous resentment. And I think that if a vote were taken in the United States, it would go 80 percent, it would be overwhelming to have prayer and Bible reading in the schools.
NARRATOR: After the ruling, the Long Island families were harassed and ostracized
BRUCE DIERENFIELD: The Roths got thousands of hate phone calls in one week. There were fistfights. There was even, at one point, a cross burning with gasoline rags near the Roths' car that nearly blew up the car and maybe the home. It was just a stunning display of hatred. It's one thing to say you believe in a principle, it's another thing to put your lives and your family on the line. And not many people do that.
NARRATOR: As the legal battles over separation of church and state were being waged, the most important social reform movement of the 20th century was putting religious faith at the center of its political aspirations.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The Civil Rights movement had as its goal to get rid of segregation. This was a political goal, but it was advanced very much through religious means. The whole thing had the feel of religion about it. It had the feel of a revival or a religious crusade. It was moving forward under the direction of people who understood the biblical prophetic tradition of calling out injustice and unrighteousness in the name of God.
NARRATOR: At the heart of the movement was the black church, which had sustained African-Americans since slavery.
Rev. RICHARD LISCHER, Prof. of Preaching, Duke Divinity School: The black church has always worked for spiritual enhancement and growth on the weekends and political up-building and improvement during the week.
CLAYBORNE CARSON, Historian, Stanford University: Black ministers saw that they needed to interpret the message of Christianity to have some special meaning for those who are poor and oppressed minorities.
NARRATOR: In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr., descended from generations of preachers, took his first job as pastor of the city's oldest black church.
ANDREW YOUNG, Aide to Martin Luther King, Jr.: He chose to go to Montgomery because he wanted a little, quiet church where he could finish his doctoral dissertation. And lo and behold, as soon as he sends in his doctoral dissertation, Rosa Parks sits down on the bus.
CLAYBORNE CARSON: Rosa Parks sets him on a different course, that once she takes her action of refusing to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus, a movement starts. And he's selected to lead it.
NARRATOR: As the new leader of the bus boycott, King gave his first Civil Rights speech in a packed Montgomery church. Just 26 years old, he laid out the central ideas that would define the movement, merging biblical principles with the ideals of democracy.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: We are not wrong in what we are doing! If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong! If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong! If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!
FRANKLIN LAMBERT: Martin Luther King saw America's founding documents as giving a voice, giving expression to fundamental biblical principles of justice and peace and equality. We're all equal before God, says the Bible. All men are created equal, says the Declaration of Independence. And so Martin Luther King is saying, "Let's take that seriously."
NARRATOR: The bus boycott challenged the power structure in Montgomery. At their home on South Jackson Street, King and his family endured death threats that shook his resolve.
Rev. RICHARD LISCHER: In the middle of the night, he receives a threatening telephone call. The call says, "We're going to hurt your family, so you better just get out of town."
CLAYBORNE CARSON: And he's sitting alone in the kitchen, and his wife and child are in the bedroom. And he is wondering, you know, "Why did I do this? Why did I accept this role?"
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage!
NARRATOR: King later recounted how he sat alone in his kitchen and prayed.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness! Stand up for justice.! And lo, I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on! He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone, no, never alone!
CLAYBORNE CARSON: And it's at that point he had that sense that God was with him in the struggle. And once he had goes through that crisis, I think he's really at peace with whatever is going to happen.
NARRATOR: Just three days later, King's house was bombed.
ANDREW YOUNG: They just barely missed his baby daughter. Coretta had just taken her back to the kitchen to get her some milk. She was 3 weeks old or something like that.
NARRATOR: After the bombing, a crowd of supporters gathered outside, eager for revenge.
ANDREW YOUNG: All of the men had been to the war, and they came to Martin's house with their guns. And he had read Gandhi by that time, and he said, "We've got to find another way to change America without violence." And he sent them home with their guns.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: We still have the attitude of love. We still have the method passive resistance. And we are still insisting emphatically that violence is self-defeating, that he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.
NARRATOR: A year later, the Supreme Court declared that Montgomery's segregated buses were illegal, a victory for King's strategy of non-violent resistance.
ANDREW YOUNG: You began to see a way to change America without destroying America that allowed us to exercise our religion, our faith, and our fight for freedom.
NARRATOR: As the Civil Rights movement linked faith with political change, the candidacy of John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign reignited the struggle over the separation of church and state.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: As recently as 1960, we still had this fear of Catholics in America. You had this specter of Vatican takeover of American society that people have been worried about in American history for hundreds of years before even Kennedy emerged.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: Up until Kennedy, all the presidents were Protestant. This had been a Protestant country. We wouldn't have said it that way, but it was.
GRANT WACKER, Professor of Christian History: This was a historic Protestant fear, that a Catholic president could not possibly be uncompromised in relation to the Vatican.
QUESTION: You would be divided between two loyalties, to your church and to your state, if you were to be elected president?
Sen. JOHN F. KENNEDY (D-MA), Presidential Candidate: Let me just say that I would not. I have sworn to uphold the Constitution in the 14 years I've been in Congress, in the years I was in the service. The Constitution provides in the 1st Amendment that Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of religion. I must say I believe in it. I think it's the only way that this country can go ahead.
NARRATOR: The prospect of a Catholic in the White House alarmed Protestant supporters of Kennedy's opponent, Richard Nixon, who was closely allied with Billy Graham.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER, Barnard College, Columbia University: Richard Nixon, who Graham thinks is an exemplar of Protestant values, Christian values. Graham is very concerned about the prospect of a Roman Catholic in the White House, and he resolves to do something about it. But he's cagey enough to remain on the sidelines.
NARRATOR: As the fall campaign began, Billy Graham wrote to Kennedy, assuring the candidate that rumors Graham might raise the religious issue were not true.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER: It was a very cordial, congenial letter, as you might imagine. Eight days later, Billy Graham convenes a meeting of American Protestant ministers in Montreux, Switzerland, for the purpose of discussing how they could ensure that John Kennedy would not be elected in November.
NARRATOR: Behind the scenes, Graham wrote Nixon about the meeting and the group's plans, but he would keep his own role private and not speak publicly on the Catholic issue.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER: Just after Labor Day, there was another gathering of Protestant clergy in Washington, D.C., at the Mayflower Hotel. Billy Graham was not there. It was a closed-door meeting. The purpose of the gathering was to sound the alarm that, "We think it is dangerous to elect a Roman Catholic as president of the United States."
NARRATOR: In Houston, Texas, before 300 Protestant ministers, Kennedy confronted the issue head on, clarifying his views on church and state.
Sen. JOHN F. KENNEDY: So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER: After Kennedy's election, of course, Graham wants to maintain his access to power, and in particular, to the presidency. So there's a meeting that is arranged between the two of them before Kennedy even takes office. So Graham already is trying to make inroads into the Kennedy administration, even though he had worked very hard to derail Kennedy's election in 1960.
NARRATOR: While Billy Graham pursued an insider's relationship with political power, Martin Luther King took a very different stance. King would remain the outsider, keeping his distance from the White House even as he pressured the new president to act on Civil Rights.
CLAYBORNE CARSON, Historian, Stanford University: Kennedy, at this time, does not have a strong commitment to Civil Rights reform. Kennedy is concerned about the cold war and other kinds of issues. That's where his priority is. So he wants to keep the Civil Rights issue on the back burner.
NARRATOR: In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, King would launch waves of protests in the hope that images of aggressive police action might arouse the conscience of the nation and its president.
[newspaper headline: "Billy Graham urges restraint in sit-ins"]
NARRATOR: Billy Graham called for restraint, saying King should "put the brakes on." When King himself was arrested for marching without a permit, white religious leaders in Birmingham denounced him.
FRANKLIN LAMBERT, Historian, Purdue University: Fellow men of God are calling for him to back away. He's creating more problems. He's disturbing the peace. He is bringing woes to the South. They saw that as ungodly. And Martin Luther King was appalled.
ANDREW YOUNG: So he started writing this letter from the Birmingham jail. He wrote it around the margins of The New York Times, and when he ran out of space, he wrote on toilet tissue.
CLAYBORNE CARSON, Stanford University: The letter itself is a response to the challenge of white ministers in Birmingham, who had said, you know, "Why are you coming? Why are you causing trouble in our city?" So he has to respond to that because they're challenging him as a Christian minister and saying that, "What you're doing doesn't seem very Christian to me."
NARRATOR: In his letter, later published in The Atlantic Monthly, King said he was preaching "the gospel of freedom" and challenged the complacency of his fellow ministers.
Rev. RICHARD LISCHER, Duke Divinity School: He goes on to question the good faith of the religious leaders in the churches who are so critical of his movement. He says, "I drive by their churches with their perfectly manicured front lawns, and I ask myself who is their God?"
FRANK LAMBERT: How can someone who professes to worship a God and a savior who saw all people as being equal, who created all people equal, a Christ who died for all people- how could these servants of that God and of that Christ do anything other than join in the fight for Civil Rights?
NARRATOR: The Birmingham campaign grew more violent, and King's followers would find their own faith severely tested. Memories of those moments remain vivid today.
ANDREW YOUNG: When we go about two blocks from the jail, the police had blocked the street with the dogs and the fire trucks. When we got there, they said, "You can't go to the jail." And so everybody got down on their knees and started praying.
And when people are in that kind of situation, it's not a verbal prayer, it's more a moan. And when the emotional, scared, religious people start moaning, something happens. And something happened not only to us but to the police.
And somebody jumped up. A lady said, "God is with this movement. We're going on to the jail." And we started walking directly at the police and the dogs. And all of a sudden, the dogs weren't barking, and we started singing, "I want Jesus to walk with me." And when you get through and you looked back, you saw all of these fire trucks blocking the street. And some good little sister hollered, "Great God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one more time!"
NARRATOR: But the images of Birmingham police attacking young demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses had shocked the nation and built a momentum for change that would finally lead President Kennedy to propose a landmark Civil Rights bill.
Pres. JOHN F. KENNEDY: It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets. And new laws are needed at every level. But law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
CLAYBORNE CARSON: Kennedy says, "It's an issue as old as the Scriptures," and as old as this nation, you know, in terms of the principles underlying it. Now, that's precisely what King has been saying, is that this is an issue that has to do with basic American values that have not been realized.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: Throughout American history, the main story that we've gravitated toward has been the Exodus story, a people on the march with God by their side. And we've told it to ourselves as Puritans coming over to New England, as Mormons heading west across the mountains. And it was that story that really sustained the Civil Rights movement.
Rep. JOHN LEWIS (D-GA), Civil Rights Leader: Slavery was our Egypt. Segregation was our Egypt. Discrimination was our Egypt. And so during the height of the Civil Rights movement, it was not unusual for people to be singing, "Go down Moses, way on down in Egypt land, and tell old Pharaoh to let my people go." And people identify with that.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: And I think part of what gave the Civil Rights movement power was the idea that the story of the Bible didn't end when the Bible ends. It's still going on now. The same activity of this God who wants freedom for his creation is inspiring Martin Luther King, just as it inspired Moses.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
NARRATOR: In his speech at the 1963 march on Washington, King assumed the mantle of an Old Testament prophet, indicting his country for failing to live up to its founding principles.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
RICHARD LISCHER: Suddenly, he turns and moves away from his manuscript, almost rolls his eyes toward the heavens and says, "But I still have a dream."
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream.
RICHARD LISCHER: From then, the speech takes on an entirely different character. The judgmental prophet, the Jeremiah, gives way to the visionary who sees a better day.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!
ANDREW YOUNG: The "I have a dream" was sort of like Lincoln's "Of the people, by the people, for the people." It was our Declaration of Independence, our declaration of freedom, and our Gettysburg address.
NARRATOR: The march on Washington and the passage of Kennedy's Civil Rights bill, pushed through Congress by President Lyndon Johnson, were triumphs for the Civil Rights movement. But the next year, when they pressed Johnson for new guarantees for the right to vote, they met resistance.
ANDREW YOUNG: Lyndon Johnson explained to us why we couldn't have a Voting Rights Act, and he was very apologetic about his powerlessness as president.
NARRATOR: The movement would once again decide to challenge the conscience of a president.
SELMA POLICE OFFICER: It will be detrimental to your safety to continue this march. Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The power of the Civil Rights movement and of King, and of the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience, was that it assumed that the opponents knew in their hearts that they were wrong. And it's the sort of the God in you that knows it's wrong.
ANDREW YOUNG: The next thing you know, Lyndon Johnson was introducing a voting rights bill with the words, "And we shall overcome." And so you saw that this was a government of the people and the people had the power, not the president. You had the feeling that you were being used by forces that you had no control over. And all you had to do was let go and let God.
Rev. RANDALL BALMER: What I find remarkable about Martin Luther King is that he was willing to cooperate with politicians, most significantly with Lyndon Johnson. And yet King was able to maintain his distance, his prophetic distance, from power and from the lures of power.
NARRATOR: King put his relationship with Johnson at risk, directly confronting the president on Vietnam.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: -to oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam!
RICHARD LISCHER: It's one thing to be a popular prophet or an inside prophet, where you have instant access to the halls of power, you can have lunch or tea with Lyndon Baines Johnson whenever it's convenient. But in his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he became an outside prophet, like Jeremiah throwing pebbles from the outside.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: And don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and seems that I can hear God saying to America, "You are too arrogant, and if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power!"
RICHARD LISCHER: He knowingly and willingly burnt his bridges to the source of power in the United States. And he did so because, as he said, "I am a minister of the gospel, and I must tell that truth."
Rev. RANDALL BALMER, Barnard College/Columbia University: And I take that as an illustration of King's ability to use the political system, but not to allow himself or to allow the faith to become co-opted by politicians, to become corrupted by access to the councils of power.
NARRATOR: By the end of his life, Martin Luther King had fully embraced his role as political outsider and uncompromising American prophet.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind.
RICHARD LISCHER: He had never spoken with such power and never articulated this vision with such a depth of feeling as he did on the night before he died.
Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: I just want to do God's will. And he's 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, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land!
ANDREW YOUNG: His death was not the end, and his words and his spirit have moved all across the earth. It points to the fact that this is a religious universe. Most people, particularly most educated Americans, get uncomfortable when their emotions and their spirituality get the best of their intellect. But there are times when intellect can't handle it.
The truly religious moments in our Civil Rights movement didn't make any intellectual sense. Nobody in their right mind would do some of the things that we did, but we did it because we were caught up in a spirit.
FRANK LAMBERT: By the late '60s, religion has changed in America. What we see is a movement from emphasis of personal salvation to a social gospel. And that comes primarily from the Civil Rights movement. They have refused to accept the gospel as simply a message of personal redemption.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: This is a period where religion is pushing us, changing us as individuals, but also pushing us and changing us as a society. The public space, the political and social space, is sort of ripe for religious harvesting. The success of the Civil Rights movement is going to move people to say, "Let's use religion in the political space in the direction that we want to go," sort of a big, green light, in a way, to the conjoining together of religion and politics in American life.
Published October 11, 2010