Joyous day' didn't erase racist folklore
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Many people predicted racist Mormons would abandon their church en
masse when it opened its priesthood to blacks in June 1978. Didn't
"It was a joyous day for every member of the church - black, white,
it doesn't matter the color," Merrill Bateman of the LDS First Quorum
of Seventy said on the 25th anniversary of lifting the ban.
The change brought relief to many white Mormons who were mortified
by charges of racism leveled at them and The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints. And it brought a string of firsts: First black
priest ordained in Utah. First black missionary. First black bishop.
First black couple married in the temple. First black men ordained in
Los Angeles, Rio, Jamaica, Nigeria. First black general authority.
The most dramatic changes occurred in predominantly black countries
formerly off limits to Mormon missionaries. Today there are more than
200,000 Latter-day Saints in Africa alone.
Underneath the euphoria, though, lurks a continuing race problem.
"It's not the same kind of racism it was 40 years ago," says Darron
Smith, an outspoken LDS black member. "Now it's happy-face racism -
denial that there's a problem and shoot the messenger."
Smith worked until recently as an adjunct professor at LDS
Church-owned Brigham Young University and as a diversity counselor.
Last month his contract was not renewed, he says, and he was told it
was because of his constant raising of this issue with the media and
in public forums.
But Smith, co-editor of an anthology, Black and Mormon, won't be silence=
"I have remained faithful to the church, but that doesn't seem to
count for much," Smith says in a phone interview. "They vilify me."
He and others have tried to get the LDS Church to repudiate what
they see as racist folklore once used to defend the ban: The idea that
blacks descended from Cain, the biblical figure who murdered his
brother, or that blacks couldn't choose between God and Satan in the
pre-Earth life, making them "fence-sitters in heaven."
"These ideas, though never based in revelation or canonical
sources, were authoritatively taught by LDS leaders as late as the
1980s," says Armand Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology at
Washington State University and author of All Abraham's Children:
Changing Mormon Conceptions of Lineage and Race.
Such notions never have been rejected officially or publicly, so
they continue to circulate in the LDS grapevine, Mauss says,
especially in Utah, where the largely white population has little
experience with African-Americans.
To counter the perceived racism, the LDS Church has taken steps to
show its openness to people of color.
In recent years, the church has supported, and even sponsored,
various commemorations of black Mormon pioneers and has sponsored
celebrations of Black History Month in well-publicized conferences and
workshops in Salt Lake City, Southern California and Washington, D.C.
For several years, the church has been promoting family history and
genealogy for black people, starting with the Freedman's Bank project,
which computerized and made publicly available family records of
slaves. It has built large new churches in inner-city Harlem and
Its official position on the ban is that only God knows the reason
it took so long to eliminate.
That would be fine, Mauss says, if people would leave it at that.
But they don't. So he and Smith favor an official statement against
"I know that some of the [LDS apostles] would like to see such a
statement issued, but I don't know how many of them," he says.
"President [Gordon B.] Hinckley clearly believes that it is not
necessary, for the 1978 revelation and policy change 'speaks for
itself,' as he has said."
Mauss doesn't expect such a statement as long as Hinckley lives,
"even though his administration has been otherwise very sincere in its
outreach to black people."
Smith is less patient.
"Racist folklore will remain in the church until LDS officials
publicly repudiate it from the pulpit - at stake conferences, ward
conferences and General Conference," he says. "All of us need to ask
questions, not just blacks. It's only when the white boy asks the
right questions that progressive things will happen for the church. We
don't need any more white liberals, we need white radicals."