Reminiscing on the Priesthood Ban

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.

Comments

  1. I’d love to see it, Margaret.

  2. I too, am interested in seeing the trailer, if you decide to put it up.

  3. Margaret, we would be honored to see the trailer; we can’t wait to see the finished project, as well. Thanks for your post.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Margaret, just so you know, I am a great admirer of your ongoing efforts WRT this issue. We are of course all looking forward to the doc.

  5. I would LOVE to see it, but I understand and respect the trepidation. Do whatever you feel inspired to do – which, based on what little I know of you through this odd fellowship, I am sure you will do without my or anyone else’s encouragement.

  6. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I second what Ray (#5) said. I was born in 1978, shortly before the ban was lifted. I never knew the ban and I’d like to understand more about what life was like for everyone when it was up. I really look forward to your documentary, Margaret!

  7. How very exciting for the movie and trailer – I always appreciate your insights, Margaret.

    A month ago, my teenager’s Sunday school teacher somehow starting opining on Martin Luther King, Jr. (I don’t know how it came up) and said he was a Communist and an adulterer and a bad man (This from a ~45 year old woman). My daughter was mortified (some kids called the teacher on this); I’m sure there’s few ways to become irrelevant to this generation of teens than saying something like that. I’m a convert so I don’t know what to say to my kids when they ask how the Church could have withheld the priesthood to blacks – “I don’t know,” is usually my answer.

  8. We have two African Am. sisters in our Las Vegas ward, both fairly recently baptized. Each of them had dreams that they should join the church – one of them had never even heard of the Mormon church when it was told to her in the dream. I wonder how widespread that is. I read of many people having dreams about the church in the early days, and from these two sisters, I wonder if dreams are being poured out on AA as the work is being spread more predominately to them.

  9. Joshua Madson says:

    One more who would love to see it.

  10. My dad described hearing about the ban being lifted in the same way: a relief.

    I would love to see and hear more about your video. I loved hearing you talk about it at the AML meeting at BYU a couple months ago.

  11. Stephanie says:

    Your experience with your seminary teacher reminds me a lot of an experience I had with a Sunday School teacher who would always refer to gay people in a very disparaging way. It was quite upsetting, and when I pointed it out, many of the male students in the class spoke out in his defense. Many will point out that being gay is not the same as being black, because all though some people naturally have homosexual tendencies, they are able to choose not to act on them. However, I believe these are similar situations, because they both reflect a tendency of some church members to act as if they are superior, speak of people unkindly, and pass unrighteous judgment all based up the merits of their straight-white-maleness. (I will point out that women do this too, often saying things that are insulting to others and themselves).

  12. I have noticed this too, Stephanie, though I am lucky enough to have an Institute teacher now who is an actor by profession, and so, I believe, has been innoculated (to use a word from an earlier thread towards the gay community as a whole more than most members.

  13. To #7, TAG, if your children ask about the priesthood ban you should point out that throughout most of recorded scriptural history, gospel participation has always been based on what tribe, race or group you were born into. The current situation is unusual in the big picture, because this is the first time that full gospel participation has been extended to all people. But this is the dispensation of the fullness of times.

    An exception to the general rule that was in force prior to 1978, that gospel participation is based on your birth, is when Peter and the apostles were instructed to take the gospel to everybody, including the unclean gentiles. However even that instruction was actually limited by their geography and the short time left before the apostasy.

    Some people consider it unfair that one’s birth would limit or dictate their gospel participation, but God, whose ways are higher than ours, had full control of which lineage we were born into. I feel confident that a loving God sent each person into the birth situation that was best for them.

    With my limited understanding I have a hard time understanding how people born into stark poverty, starvation, oppressive political and family situations, or born with physical and mental handicaps fits into the big plan. But I am confident that people born into those situations are not being shortchanged by an uncaring God, just as I am confident that people in this dispensation who were denied priesthood and temple blessings were not shortchanged.

  14. I feel confident that a loving God sent each person into the birth situation that was best for them.

    Care to elaborate? Do you really think God micro-manages our births?

  15. I feel confident that a loving God sent each person into the birth situation that was best for them.

    This remark, and Ronan’s subsequent question, raise enough complexities to really deserve a post of their own. A good starting point, though, is Kent C. Condie’s fascinating Dialogue article, available for free online, about genetics, preexistent spirits, and the issue of freedom (Condie, 2006, Premortal Spirits: Implications for Cloning, Abortion, Evolution, and Extinction, Dialogue 39 (Spring): pgs. 35-56.)

    In a nutshell, the problem is this: given what we know now about genetics and human reproduction, it’s clear that our appearance is determined by who our parents are, the exact moment at which they choose to have the intercourse that leads to our conception, and other micro factors. For God to send spirits in a way that closely controls for timing — because we often assume that God sends us here at specific moments for a reason — parentage, sex, etc. would require that God be willing to micromanage sexual pairing. Divine attention would not only be needed to prevent coupling not in the plan, but also to ensure coupling — even coupling outside of marriage — that is in the plan.

    And, while we’re at it, racial categorization during the period of the ban revolved — for those without extensive geneologies — around physical appearance, since basically all of those who did receive the priesthood certainly had black ancestors, but simply didn’t have an appearance that counts as black in American racial frames. Yet appearance is genetically determined, and especially in borderline cases sex between the same two parents — but a few hours earlier or later — might change priesthood eligibility for the resulting child.

    So the theory that God was sending people to either priesthood-eligible or non-eligible groups by plan requires that God not only control all sexual decisions, including reproduction outside of marriage, but also that God micro-manage the moment at which sexual partners choose to have intercourse. How is any of this compatible with Mormon notions of human freedom and reluctance to teach predestination?

  16. How is any of this compatible with Mormon notions of human freedom and reluctance to teach predestination?

    It isn’t.

  17. JNS,

    The problem you sketch represents, I think, the first deep religious thought I had. I think I was about 16 when I realised that almost everything about me, both physically and mentally, was the result of a singular and temporally specific act of creation, not only of my parents, but of all my ancestors going back to the beginning of time. Change anything, even in the minutest degree, and I am different, or probably don’t exist at all (not in any way that can be called “me”).

    Whoever we were in the pre-existence, that “ego” cannot simply have been the “spirit” counterpart of who we are now.

    Which is why I like the word “intelligence” to describe our pre-existent state. It is more primal, and less problematic, than the My Turn on Earth model.

    Yeah, another post.

  18. CW, from a different angle, the Calvinistic foundation of what you describe is one of the central creeds Joseph’s theology repudiated.

    Having said that, I am ambivalent about the “coupling” question. I do not believe that every person is meant to marry their pre-existent “split-apart”, but I also look at my own experience and truly am amazed (deeply and profoundly astounded) at what had to happen for me to meet my wife – and how much it felt not like an introduction of strangers but a re-introduction of best friends. I look forward to the day when I will see enough of the bigger picture to understand that fully.

  19. Ray, I also have a miraculous-seeming marriage — but what of children born through rapes? Or one-night stands? Such children need to be as fully accounted-for and micro-managed in a scheme like CW’s as children born in loving relationships.

  20. 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…

    Great post Margaret, thank you for sharing. I’d love to see the trailer. If you’re worried about it not being ready for the general public, you can make videos on Youtube Private. I’ve used it to show my in-laws video of my baby playing in the tub and things like that. Meaning each person that wants to view it (I assume after reading your post) would need to ask permission which you would grant through Youtube. It’s a little more trouble, but keeps the riff-raff away.

  21. You can also make it so nobody can imbed it in their own site, so you’d control where they see it.

  22. Greg B. says:

    “Change anything, even in the minutest degree, and I am different, or probably don’t exist at all (not in any way that can be called “me”).”

    I have become more tolerant and forgiving as I realize how dependent we are on specific decisions and past events. For example, my siblings and I have learned that my father was conceived by unmarried LDS youth in SLC during the 1940s. My biological grandmother gave birth to my dad in an unwed mothers’ home in another state, and my non-LDS grandparents subsequently adopted him. At 21, my father joined the Church during his college years, married my LDS mother, and raised five LDS kids.
    I recognize that I am the product of my parents’ DNA and the exact timing that one winning sperm met one egg (we’re all conceived as winners!). I am also the product of my biological grandparents’ sin–I do not exist without their transgression. I appreciate the irony that their teenage romp was not God’s will for them, yet its outcome was God’s will for me, and I can hardly denounce the specific act that provided me with life. How many similar patterns are repeated in our histories?

  23. I agree, JNS. That’s why I am ambivalent. I certainly think it is a possibility, given how I feel about my own wife, but I also can’t believe it is universal. This is one where I can say in all sincerity, I simply don’t have any idea.

    Greg B, I think all of us would be more tolerant if we really believed that “there but for the grace of God go I.” I undertand the “chosen generation” mentality and its inspiration, but I can’t embrace it fully given its tendency to breed a degree of self-righteousness.

  24. Well actually predestination is the scriptural, (biblical anyway) term. God knew us before we were in the womb. And in fact God knows all things, past, present and future. He knows our entire life story, even before we are born.

    We do have a hard time understanding how His foreknowledge still allows free agency, but that is a problem of our limited understanding.

    Today the priesthood is extended to all men, but that is limited to where you were born and currently reside. Many men are NOT being offered the priesthood at this point because they reside in the wrong country, IE their birth, and place of birth, still determine their gospel participation.

    A friend of mine has a child that was born with extensive brain damage. There are no higher brain functions we associate with intelligence. He breathes, sucks on straws for liquid nourishment, does not know how to eat solids, does not speak or communicate in any way, and shows no recognition of anybody, including family members even though he is 16 years old at this time. He goes to high school every day and is wheeled around in his wheel chair which he is strapped into because he can not sit in it without falling out. He goes to high school every day for two reasons. His parents benefit from having a break from caring for him around the clock. And the government, in its wisdom has used a cookie cutter approach to say that all children will have the benefit of a public education.

    I read about another child who was so bright that by 5th grade he was smarter than the PhD’s over at the University. He also was supposed to attend high school, because in our cookie cutter mentality, it makes some kind of sense. (Actually for social reasons it might make sense, but I am only considering the academic issues to make my point.)

    Some kids really do not need to go to high school. At one end of the spectrum is that they are so advanced they don’t need it, and the other end of the spectrum is that there is no actual academic potential.

    It was repugnant when only one end of the spectrum was considered as certain Church members tried to explain the ban. And to God, whose ways are higher than our ways, there could be infinite more reasons than just these two ends of the spectrum.

    The brethren, in their authorized statements always said “We do not know why.” For us to add a wink and a nod to that statement, and say, well actually we all know why, is akin to reaching out to steady the ark, that doesn’t need to be steadied.

  25. Steve Evans says:

    CW, your comment doesn’t make a lot of sense to me — are you just taking a roundabout way of saying, “we don’t know and we shouldn’t speculate”? If so, why is your comment full of low-level speculation and analogy as to how the priesthood is still refused to some and how some people don’t need high school? Very confusing. Either it’s OK to speculate or it’s not — you can’t have it both ways.

  26. Amen, Steve, especially when the ananolgies of birthplace have nothing do with an active, articualted ban on those who were NOT born in the “wrong” place – just the wrong skin. As a former school teacher, I find the school attendance analogy even more unsettling. Are you implying that some races are so advanced or so backward that they don’t need the same instruction that currently is given to all? I hope not, but it’s the best application of the example to the actual discussion we are having in this thread.

    Also, foreordination, in its purest scriptural sense, is applied to individuals – NOT populations. That also has been coverd in this thread and others this week. The chosen generation statements certainly derive from this root concept, but there is nothing of which I am aware in scripture that supports the direct application of foreordination to entire racial populations – not even Abinadi’s discourse on the Priesthood, which is perhaps the closest of which I am aware.

  27. Elouise says:

    I remember with great clarity the moment I heard of the lifting of the priesthood ban for blacks. (I don’t remember the date at all–always have been terrible about dates.) A friend and I were traveling back to Utah from California. The day was bright and clear, and the terrain flat and unchanging. Glassy-eyed, we were pretty much in that dangerous desert stupor. Of course we had the car radio on. Suddenly came the announcement. Instantly, as immediate as two lit matches, we began to yell and weep. We leaned on the horn, and leaned on the horn, and leaned on the horn, for miles. And the desert looked beautiful.

  28. I grew up in Southern California. We lived in an all black neighborhood for a couple years–well, almost all black. We were the exception. My brothers, sister, and myself were the only whites on the school bus. We got beat up because of our color.

    We moved to Virginia for a short time–about nine months. My best friend was the only black kid in the neighborhood. He had slot cars and I had drums. How could we resist being best friends?

    We moved back to the L.A. area. I was the only white boy on the basketball court during lunch our. (I can still spin a Basketball longer than anyone I know. One spin only! No tapping.)

    I was the only white in some of the bands I played in–I play the Keys. We played mostly R&B kinda-stuff.

    I was sixteen when the ban was lifted. I don’t remember how I got the news, but I do remember dancing around the living room in a state of euphoria when I got it.

  29. reaching out to steady the ark, that doesn’t need to be steadied.

    I am so tired of that analogy I could scream. I think to use it to tell people to shut up and stop talking about a gospel subject is simply a blatant misuse of the scriptures.

  30. I used to scream, MCQ, but by now I just sigh.

  31. Eleanor's Papa says:

    Re #13 – Most readers of the New Testament would say that its central message is that the blessings of the gospel is are available to all — that God is no respecter of persons.

    But even if the “fullness” only began in 1830, I’m not comfortable with explaining to my daughter that God waited until 1978 (rather than that the Church wasn’t ready yet).

  32. a random John says:

    MCQ,

    I’ve recently been on a mini-crusade against the use of the term. I think it is the bloggernacle equivalent of Goodwin’s Law. Basically if you are claiming your opponent is ark steadying what you really mean is that you want them to shut the hell up and are having a hard time articulating why that is.

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