This Life: Former co-chair of 1994 crusade says Billy Graham was man of integrity

Funny what we remember about people when they’re gone.

In the hours after Billy Graham’s death Wednesday, swollen ankles filled the mind of the Rev. Cameron Madison Alexander.

Weeks before Graham’s 1994 Atlanta crusade, the preachers had just wrapped up a meeting in Alexander’s office at Antioch Baptist Church North, when Graham asked to use the restroom.

That’s when Alexander got a peek at Graham’s ankles, so swollen they hung over his shoes, and he could finally hear the Lord speak to him.

“’What is wrong with you?’” he remembered the spirit saying to him. “‘He’s talking about the same Jesus and Holy Spirit you know.’”

Moments after Graham left that day, Alexander said he saw another sign that the televangelist wasn’t well. Despite that, he had made the trip to see him, a sign that Graham was willing to heed the spirit at any cost and was committed to his calling to spread the Gospel and see men saved.

“That got to me,” he said.

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But that wasn’t all. Alexander said that because of the Jesus in him, he’d recognized it in Graham and his spirit.

All these years later, he said that’s what he remembers most about the Rev. Billy Graham.

And though he still doesn’t believe the crusade brought blacks and whites together in the way Graham had hoped, the gathering had a profound impact on his own life.

“It changed me,” Alexander said.

It changed, too, what he thought he knew instinctively about the Holy Spirit.

“You cannot dictate what the Holy Spirit will ask you to do and you can’t always know who the spirit will use to bring you to it,” he said.

Alexander had been asked to co-chair Graham’s crusade with Frank Harrington, then pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead, but his answer was no.

Graham was neither one of his favorite preachers nor was he Alexander’s favorite revivalist. Besides that, Alexander said he had no idea what serving as co-chair meant. Even when he learned Harrington, a man he knew and respected, had been tapped to serve with him, he had misgivings.

When Graham received word that Alexander had refused to participate, he called him.

At first, he thought it might be a friend playing a trick on him.

It was Graham but Alexander still refused.

Soon thereafter, Graham arrived at Antioch unannounced.

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Do you want me to send him in, his secretary asked.

No, the pastor responded.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” he remembered. “I was just being ornery.”

He relented and for the next two hours, he and Graham talked. He’d agree to co-chair the crusade if Graham agreed to some things, too.

He wanted the crusade to be integrated from the top down. Not just co-chairs but black and white ushers, black and white choir directors, black and white across every committee. Graham, he insisted, had to say something about slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. And before the week was over, he wanted to close out with the crowd singing “We Shall Overcome,” a key anthem of the civil rights movement.

Graham agreed to everything. Alexander, even as he wrestled with the Spirit, still said no.

Then he saw the televangelist’s ankles and what he saw in the bathroom that day.

“I was very convicted,” Alexander said. “It was like I had said no to the Lord because that’s who he was representing. Before he got back to his room, I called and said I’d be honored.”

The Sunday before the crusade was scheduled to begin, Graham spoke in the Antioch pulpit. It was long before my family and I arrived in 2000 but we knew. Alexander’s role in the crusade is legendary at our church, a proud moment he won’t soon forget.

Like the rest of us, he holds Graham in high esteem.

He learned pretty quickly that Graham was a man of his word, that he had integrity.

“When the crusade ended that Friday, I was closer to heaven than I’d ever been,” Alexander said. “I was ready to march into the gate.”

Then the crusade was televised and Alexander said, “It was as if we were never there.”

Except for the African-Americans in the audience and the ushers, blacks had been edited out. There was no singing of “We Shall Overcome.”

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For years, Alexander said, he felt betrayed, but he soon realized that it wasn’t Graham, it was his staff, who were trying to appease a mostly Southern white audience.

Graham, he said, later apologized but that “stuck in my throat.”

And yet, he said, “what I remember most about him is not the crusade, not what he negotiated to do or didn’t do, it’s not what they should’ve done that they didn’t do when they aired the crusade. I think of his sincerity and him coming to see me in my office alone and those swollen ankles.”

As a pastor and former president of the state Baptist convention for 29 years, Alexander said he’s learned that people don’t always represent the leader so he gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“I’ve learned that the people who represent you don’t always do what you want and that all you can say is I’m sorry that it wasn’t carried out,” he said. “It happens.”

In the two decades since then, Alexander said he and Graham talked on occasion and had they lived closer to one another, probably would’ve met often. He was sorry to hear of his passing.

“He was a man who believed in what he preached,” Alexander said. “He represented the Lord well and so I’m sure, we’ll talk again. Yeah, I’m sure we’ll talk again. We’ll be on the right team and that team will not disappoint either of us.”

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