The Strange Love of Dr. Billy James Hargis

by Lee Roy Chapman –


This photo is among those in the collection of Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett. The collection of negatives was salvaged some years ago from the Howard Hopkins photo studio by Bartlett and consists of found negatives from 1966 to 1979, including rare images of Hargis’ Christian Crusade.


Originally published in This Land

 

Little Rock was shell-shocked. It was July of 1960, and in the past year, five bombings had terrorized the city’s public school system. The state legislature of Arkansas attempted to thwart desegregation by shutting down Little Rock’s public high schools, but the bombings sent a far more violent message to the city’s pioneering civil rights community. Similar incidents throughout the South grabbed the country’s attention, forcing the Federal government to intervene. In Arkansas, the government put a zealous Army general in command of the military district to ensure safety and integration.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents combed Arkansas for suspects in the bombings, and they were looking for one man in particular: a high-profile segregationist preacher from Oklahoma named Billy James Hargis. According to FBI special agent Joe Casper, Hargis was planning to bomb the Philander Smith College in Little Rock soon. The preacher had recently met with two other bombing suspects at a Memphis restaurant.

“We ought to get a permissive search warrant from him [Hargis] to search his home, car, and any outbuildings at his residence,” Casper suggested. “We have evidence that these people we have arrested in Little Rock have been in contact with him.”

The FBI had cause to be concerned. Hargis’ tirades mirrored those from any number of early 20th century Ku Klux Klan pamphlets. He was anti-communist, anti-union, pro-segregation, and he preached those values on a 15-minute daily radio show that aired on stations throughout North America. Based in Tulsa, The Christian Crusade was the public name of Hargis’ media empire, one that included a magazine, the daily radio program, Christian Crusade Publications, and a pioneering direct mail operation that expertly distributed Hargis’ propaganda throughout the world. By 1960, Hargis had the ability to martial sizeable crowds and stir them with his incendiary speeches. I