I was born in 1955–the year Rosa Parks made her bold stand (or sit) on the Montgomery bus. I grew up being aware that my church did not have Black members–not even in Bloomington, Indiana. By the time I was twelve, I was troubled by the priesthood restriction. When I was fourteen, I told my seminary teacher that I thought some of what he said was racist. His response was a authoritatively voiced testimony that [n-word plural] really were inferior. That marked the first time I knew a Church teacher–an authority figure to me–was dead wrong. I dropped out of seminary for a time.
I was seventeen in 1973 when Lester Bush’s seminal article “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine” was published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. My parents subscribed to the journal, and I read the article eagerly. I remember talking to a friend newly called as a missionary to Brazil and asking him specifically about the priesthood restriction. It was an issue which continued to fester for me, though I knew no Blacks. (I was raised mostly in Provo, though Dad did post graduate work in Bloomington and in Chicago, so I had had Black classmates as a child.) It would be years before the issue would become very personal to me. At the time, it was philosophically troubling, not personally. Before long, it became very personal.
Because I am going to keep this brief, I won’t even attempt to portray what it was like to be LDS when the priesthood restriction was in place. It would seem that in Utah, it wouldn’t matter anyway because there were so few Blacks. But it did matter. Deeply. We were hearing Martin Luther King Jr., who was usually portrayed (at least by people around BYU) as a Communist and an adulterer. But how can you not be moved by “I have a Dream”? How can you hear impassioned cries for equality and not respond with your whole heart? We were told that the policy was the result of direct revelation and we should accept it on faith. It was not easy to do that. At least for me, it was not easy.
Fast forward to June 8, 1978. I was living in Mexico City working on a literacy project. I got the news from my Bishop’s weeping wife, in Spanish. I wept too.
I can’t really describe the relief, the feeling of loosing a burden I hadn’t known was so heavy. It was OVER. (Wasn’t it?)
In the years since, I have become heavily involved with the Genesis Group and the remarkable lives of many African Americans. I don’t have to worry about the priesthood restriction, but I am very aware that the journey ain’t over yet.
We’ve considered making the trailer for Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons available on a blog (via you-tube), but are not sure that’s the wisest step. I would love BCC readers to see it, because it puts faces to the issues we still face as Mormons. But I am somewhat nervous about doing it. I’m looking at options…
And though as a writing teacher, I feel rather silly leaving this brief account with no real conclusion, I am going to do it anyway. No conclusion yet. Consider it a symbol.