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. In the eyes of the FBI, he was a serious threat; in the minds of many Cold War Americans, though, Hargis was a new kind of patriot.

Crusading for Purity and Essence

Before anyone heard Rush Limbaugh infiltrating AM radio, before televangelists like Pat Robertson and James Dobson organized the Christian Right, before Tea Party favorites Rand Paul and Paul Ryan began their campaigns, there was Billy James Hargis. Born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1925, Hargis was raised in poverty during the Great Depression and at an early age decided to commit his life to Christianity. Clean-cut, chubby, and baby-faced, he looked like a Kip’s Big Boy statue come to life. By the age of 22, Hargis had become a religious renegade. After a brief stint as a pastor in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, he married a woman named Betty Jane and in 1948 started his own religious non-profit, Christian Echoes Ministry, where he began preaching against communism.

Anti-communism wasn’t a new message in Oklahoma; as early as 1917, with the start of the Bolshevik Revolution, civic organizations like the Tulsa Councils of Defense, [1] in conjunction with local publications like the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune, contributed to an atmosphere of repression and paranoia, now known as the Red Scare. But it was the strong presence of the Invisible Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma that made anti-communism an integral part of the Protestant faith—the Klan opposed Catholicism and Judaism as much as it railed against communism. [2]

The KKK took their symbolic cues from the Christian crusades of Medieval Europe—knights, white robes, and fiery crosses—and they borrowed the terminology of the period. They called themselves the Invisible Empire, Knights, Dragons, and Wizards. By the time Hargis was a young man in the late 1940s, the Klan was in its decline in Oklahoma—but its potent mix of segregationist ideology, Evangelical Protestantism, and anti-communism found a champion in the gifted young evangelist.

During the early part of the 1950s, Hargis traveled the country, lecturing on the many conspiracies facing Americans, like communist infiltration and fluoridated water. Hargis’ Christian Crusade floundered at first, until Hargis came up with a flamboyant plan in 1953: He would take Bible verses, tie them to tens of thousands of hydrogen-filled balloons, and launch them from Chalms, Germany, with hopes that the balloons would land over the Iron Curtain. His idea managed to attract the support of the International Council of Christian Churches, [3] which helped fund and realize the project. The ICC’s support of Hargis brought him onto the world stage of an emerging post-war phenomenon, right-wing evangelism. Hargis was now poised to become the spokesman for a new movement that fused American politics with fundamentalist Christianity.



No Fighting in the War Room

Hargis’ crusade found many allies, but it was his collaboration with one man that proved to be a catalyst for the formation of America’s religious right. A West Point graduate, Major General Edwin “Ted” Walker was a WWII army hero and leader in the Korean War. In 1957, Walker found himself in command of the Arkansas Military District in Little Rock, just as the city’s civil rights tensions were escalating.

As President Eisenhower prepared to use Federal troops to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock’s public schools, Walker was protesting the matter directly to Eisenhower; he opposed racial integration.  Nevertheless, Walker followed Ike’s orders and ended up receiving national praise for helping to integrate Little Rock; a 1957 cover of Time magazine portrayed him as a hero. Walker would later state that he led forces for the wrong side in Little Rock—he believed black students had no business attending white schools.

Before the integration of Little Rock, Walker was a garden-variety anti-communist, but when the incident at Little Rock propelled him into the political spotlight, he became radicalized. The same year, both Billy James Hargis and Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt were bombarding Arkansas radio waves with their rightist sermons—programs that aligned completely with the position of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who believed communists had infiltrated the U.S. government. [4] Hargis, however, advanced McCarthy’s views even further, and preached that the civil rights movement was itself a godless communist plot.

In 1959, when Walker was still in command in Little Rock, he met with a conservative publisher named Robert Welch, who had recently founded the John Birch Society on the premise that Eisenhower was in reality a communist. [5]Walker, primed for years by Hargis’s radio rants, joined the society and turned against the government. He attempted to resign from the Army citing concerns over communist encroachment in the U.S., but Eisenhower refused Walker’s resignation and instead promoted him to the position of Commanding General of the 24th Infantry Division.

Convinced that his commander-in-chief was a dreaded communist, Walker nevertheless agreed to accept Eisenhower’s offer. In October of 1959, Walker took command of 10,000 troops in Augsburg, Germany. Now at the height of his military career, Walker devised a plan to propagate his views to U.S. servicemen who trusted his leadership—views that came directly from the teachings of the John Birch Society and the Christian Crusade.

While Walker was commanding his troops in Europe, the political landscape in America was changing drastically. John F. Kennedy was the embodiment of everything Walker hated and feared: he was Catholic, he was liberal, and he was sympathetic to the United Nations. Camelot—as Kennedy’s presidency came to be known—was, in Walker’s eyes, evidence that the U.S government had succumbed to communism. Kennedy was sworn into the office of the presidency on January 20, 1961, just as Walker was establishing the guidelines for the strict regime that would govern his troops.

“Within my authority and within the requirements of training necessity, I devised an anti-communist training program second to none—called ‘Pro Blue,’ ” Walker wrote in a memoir. “Equally important—I organized a Psychological Warfare section with the Division to extend the Pro Blue Program through six echelons, to include every officer and soldier—chaplain, medic and rifleman.”


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