WASHINGTON – Billy Graham stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the morning of July 4, 1970, to deliver his message, “The Unfinished Dream,” to a crowd estimated between 15,000 and 30,000 people.
Graham was the keynote speaker for Honor America Day’s “nationally televised religious service,” according to a Baptist Press (BP) story at the time. Total attendance for Honor America Day celebrations near the memorial that day would approach 400,000. Amid the political and emotional chaos of the Vietnam War, Honor America Day was organized to boost the American spirit and “rededicate [Americans] to the responsibilities of America for the unfinished tasks ahead,” former President Lyndon B. Johnson said.
Billy Graham Evangelistic Associaiton photo
Billy Graham addresses thousands from the steps of Lincoln Memorial on Honor America Day in 1970.
The religious service included Graham’s message; benedictions by Baptists E.V. Hill and E.L. Harrison and Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen; and music by Kate Smith, the United States Army Band and the CenturyMen, a choir of 100 Southern Baptist men. A parade of flags to the White House concluded the morning’s festivities.
The religious service was the first in a series of national, patriotic celebrations that day including activities on the mall between Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, a spectacular fireworks show and various other events featuring such notables as Bob Hope, Glen Campbell, Jack Benny, Dinah Shore and the New Christy Minstrels.
Although reports in preparation for the event stated that police were expecting a peaceful crowd, Graham’s message was met with protesters. Young “hippies” dishonored the flag, shouted anti-war obscenities, attempted to disrupt the service and tried to climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Their efforts were unsuccessful; the crowd applauded as the protesters were dispersed by park police.
Graham began by interpreting 1 Peter 2:17 to mean “honor the nation,” establishing a tie to the Independence Day celebration. “We’re not only here today to honor America,” he declared, “but we’re here as citizens to renew our dedication and allegiance to the principles and institutions that made her great.”
Graham acknowledged the significance of the monuments surrounding him and the vision represented by Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. “We can listen to no better voices than these men who gave us the dream that has become America,” the evangelist said. “These men represent thousands who worked, prayed, suffered and died to give us this nation.”
The nation’s institutions were “under attack,” Graham said, but the goal of the celebration was to prove that Americans still believed in them.
“Let’s let the world know today that the majority of us still proudly sing ‘My country ‘tis of thee. Sweet land of liberty.’ America needs to sing again. America needs to celebrate again. America needs to wave the flag again.”
Graham commented on accusations against him for “honoring any secular state” by stating, “Jesus said, ‘Rend unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The apostle Paul proudly boasted of being a Roman citizen. The Bible says honor the nation. As a Christian or as a Jew or as an atheist, we have a responsibility that has always stood for liberty, protection and opportunity.”
Graham gave six reasons America was worthy of honor.
“We honor America because she has opened her heart and her doors to the distressed and the persecuted of the world.”
“We honor America because she’s been the most generous nation in history.”
“We honor America because she has never hidden her problems and faults.”
“We honor America because she is honestly recognizing and is courageously trying to solve her social problems.”
“We honor America because she defends the rights of her citizens to dissent.”
“[We honor America] because there is woven into the warp and the woof of our nation a faith in God.”
Graham spoke of a picture of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag, captioned, “Time to check our stitches.”
“Let’s check the stitches of racism that still persist in America. Let’s check the stitches of poverty that bind some of our countrymen. Let’s check the stitches of foreign policy to be sure our objectives and goals are in keeping with the American dream. Let’s check the stitches of pollution, brought on by technology. Let’s check the stitches of the moral permissiveness that could lead us to decadence. Let’s even check the stitches of freedom to see if our freedom in America has become licensed,” Graham said. “What a wonderful thing it would be if we could check these stitches before we celebrate the 200th birthday of America only six years from now. It could be done.”
Graham also commented on America’s standing with God, noting the younger generation’s need for the Bible. He echoed Jefferson’s thoughts on God’s justice and expressed his own fear for the nation.
Pleading with America, Graham said, “Today, I call upon all Americans to raise your voices in prayer and dedication to God and to recommit to the ideals and dreams for which our country was founded. Let’s dedicate ourselves today to a renewal of faith in God. Let’s dedicate ourselves to building rather than burning.”
He concluded his thoughts by reiterating Winston Churchill’s words, “I say to you today, pursue the vision, reach toward the goal, fulfill the American dream – and as you move to do it, never give in! Never give in! Never! Never! Never! Never!”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Myriah Snyder, who will be a senior at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky., is a summer intern with Baptist Press.)