Way back when blacks were denied the priesthood…

Since we now know that the “priesthood ban” was only temporary — from the days of Ham and Abraham (1:27) up through 1979 — it’s easy to selectively remember what things were like back when Mormons knew that the negro’s role was an eternal and immutable part of God’s plan. But our recent discussion of BYU sports protests reminded me that, in fact, I’d read an article about those protests from way back.

My husband is a big fan of The New Yorker, and bought the DVD ROM of their whole archives — including an article from March 21, 1970 on BYU’s reaction to Stanford’s refusal to play ball with them, among other BYU sports protests. The whole article is worth reading, and it looks like it’s available on The New Yorker site: here (though you have to sign up for their service to read it).

In a nutshell, the folks of BYU agreed with university president Earnest L. Wilkinson when he called Stanford’s action “flagrant religious discrimination.” I’m tempted to make the obvious snide remark (it’s bigot-phobia!). Yet, perversely, the zoobies of way back then seem to have had a more legitimate cause to complain than their modern counterparts who claim “religious discrimination” when Mormons are criticized for their role in passing Proposition 8: The Mormons of back then were only asking for the right to discriminate within the walls of their own private, secret clubhouse — they weren’t writing their highly questionable beliefs about others’ inferiority into the public, civil laws that affect everyone. Yet — then as now — other people have every right to (peacefully) express their own opinion of the LDS church’s policies and actions.

Allow me to share some highlights from the article. My favorite is a quote from an (unnamed) BYU P.R. guy:

There’s probably not a higher-type student body in the United States. Look at the Campus! Not a drop of paper on it. No cigarette butts. When the flag goes up, the students come to attention. On other campuses, the students burn the flag. Our students are patriotic and they’re well dressed, and these are the people who are being persecuted. The kooks, the hippies, the filthy people — they’re not persecuted.

The author (Calvin Trillin) goes on to describe BYU as many of us who were there remember it. The university newspaper dutifully reports the university’s official protestations of innocence, but has been instructed not to print any discussion of the peculiar church doctrine in question (and, of course, the paper follows that instruction). The most left-leaning political group allowed on campus is the “Young Democrats,” but there’s plenty of room for the extreme right:

Among the Mormon religious pamphlets displayed at the bookstore is one called “Civil Rights — Tool of Communist Deception,” by Ezra Taft Benson, one of the twelve apostles of the church.

Then there’s another interesting quote from the then-current president of the church (SWK?): “darkies are a wonderful people.”

According to the article, the BYU coaches have publicly acknowledged that they warn potential (black) athletic recruits that they won’t be happy at BYU (since interracial dating is strictly forbidden, and there are almost no black students at BYU) while simultaneously claiming that black athletes are recruited “under exactly the same terms as any other athletes.”

Then the author closes by saying that there is real debate within Mormonism over the race issue, just not at BYU. It’s in Dialogue.

So, what do you think? The more things change, the more they stay the same…?


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at @chanson@social.linux.pizza or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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13 Responses

  1. Chino Blanco says:

    Just in case anyone has trouble reading this article on the New Yorker site …


    Quite the read, thanks!

  2. chanson says:

    Interesting, isn’t it?

    Actually, though, since it’s copyrighted material, it’s probably not legal to redistribute the article like that….

  3. Steve M says:

    I think the “darkies” quote belongs to Joseph Fielding Smith, actually.

  4. chanson says:

    Steve M. — Thanks for the correction! The article just said it was a quote from the (then) current president of the church. I probably should have looked up who was the prophet in March of 1970.

  5. Waldemar says:

    The Prophet who called blacks darkies was Jospeh Fielding Smith. To understand President Kimball’s racism look for his Conference talk joking about the color of Navajo skin and how blood transfusions would hasten their return to purity and delightsomeness.

  6. chanson says:

    Waldemar — Yeah, I’d heard about SWK’s quotes on the skin color of the Native Americans getting lighter. That’s why I made the mistake of assuming the “darkies” remark was also from SWK.

  7. aerin says:

    Nothing to add of substance but this type of stuff always makes me sad. Sad because it reflects the attitudes of the time and sad because it hasn’t been officially repudiated.

  8. Hellmut says:

    At least Spencer Kimball genuinely liked Navajos.

  9. Matt says:

    Of course there’s a difference between genuinely liking a group of people and holding them equal. The former is no better than a pet passion without the latter. It’s patronizing, and self-righteous ignorance with a twist of lime to dull the bitterness. Human failing through and through, it’s true, but the condescension from from a position of piety is what I can’t forgive.

  10. Waldemar says:

    I agree that President Kimball genuinely loved Native Americans. American Racists often couch their ideas with love but in his case it was sincere. Of course BKM’s father -in-law said he liked darkies.

  11. Hellmut says:

    A related attitude was ethnocentrism. Some people agreed that Africans and Indians were fully human and had the same potential as Europeans. Therefore, ethnocentrists are not racists.

    But ethnocentrists believed that non-whites had to become just like whites. For example, they would provide schools and colleges for Indians and punish them for speaking their native languages.

    Teddy Roosevelt was an example of an ethnocentrist. When we read some of his statements about African Americans or Indians, we tend to assume that he was a racist, which is not quite correct.

    Mormonism is interesting in this regard because our theology did assume that ‘colored’ people are essentially different due to God’s curse but that the curse may be lifted. So there is some ambiguity whether or not the particular Mormon prejudice about race is technically racist.

    Either way, it’s wrong and dehumanizing. However, the difference does matter with respect to the issue’s resolution. Mormons could turn on a heal and abandon a good share of their prejudices on command of the prophet. While some people clung to tradition, it was not long until the first interracial marriages occurred on BYU campus.

  12. chanson says:

    Hellmut — I’m not that familiar with the story of SWK and the Navajos, but I’m not convinced that sincere affection makes a paternalistic attitude less sinister. It reminds me of your own discussion on the banality of evil:

    There are nice parents everywhere. Even the most evil systems will be able to produce someone who is a nice parent, a good buddy, and occassionally even a selfless leader.

    It also does not help much that Mormon leaders were sincere and had the best intentions. The greatest crimes of the twentieth century were committed with the best intentions. That does not mean that Mormonism is akin to the ideologies that spawned political mass murder but it does mean that good intentions and sincerity are poor excuses.

    It also reminds me of one of the central contrasts presented in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The white Northern abolishionist who felt slavery was inhuman but also found black people so loathesome that she recoiled at touching the skin of a child was presented in contrast with her slaveholding Southern relatives who were genuinely affectionate with their slaves, but loved them like pets. (Neither is presented as entirely blameless.)

    Similarly, there are a whole lot of incredibly sexist men who sincerely and genuinely love women: love spending time with them, love holding and kissing them, love keeping them in the house and treating them like feeble-minded children…

  13. Hellmut says:

    Sure, Kimball’s attitude was deeply problematic.

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