Dr. Warner Woodworth, Utah Educator
On June 8, 2008 I made the drive to Temple Square from Provo to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the restoration of the priesthood to all worthy Black males in the tabernacle. It was a thrilling event and the day brought back rich and painful memories. I want to share a bit of personal history from my experiences with Black Mormonism in Utah and Brazil, and then raise a few concluding issues.
I grew up in Salt Lake City in the 1940s-‘50s, a descendant from Mormon pioneers on my mother’s side, and on the other side, my father was a convert from Ohio. It was difficult for many Blacks growing up in the Church in those days in Utah because their numbers were few, yet discrimination was large. Both in high school and in my neighborhood, there were increasing tensions between ethnic groups.
During that period Utahns practiced segregation in various ways including forbidding prominent Blacks like the great soprano Marian Anderson who came to perform in Salt Lake from staying in the best hotel, Church-owned Hotel Utah, because of her race. As student body president of a large high school, I witnessed racial conflicts begin to rise such that as a student leader, I sought to help resolve. I remember in my own ward congregation when a long-time High Priest was told he had “Negro blood,” and he was required to refrain using the Melchizedek Priesthood for the rest of his life. I recall when in 1963 the Church issued a formal statement supporting civil rights that was read by President Hugh B. Brown, clearly the most liberal member among the Church’s apostles. It forestalled the NAACP’s plans to picket Temple Square that year. These were times of the Brown vs. Board of Education case, the heroic Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” civil rights struggles, of JFK’s feds implementing desegregation which upset many Utahns, of Malcolm X, of SCLC’s founding, bus boycotts, civil disobedience, and Rosa Parks.
Later as a college student, I recall numerous boycotts against BYU by other university sports teams because of accusations of racism. The few Black athletes who came to the university were soon essentially run out of town, and as far as I know none was able to endure the racism for a full 4 years. I remember when Joan Baez did a concert in Salt Lake City and announced that she and thousands of musicians, hippies, and other rabble-rousers would march on the Salt Lake Temple to protest the LDS Church’s race policy. During all these events many LDS members attempted to justify the culture, as well as did several out-spoken Church officials.
Eventually a number of African Americans in the Salt Lake community began meeting informally in my ecclesiastical unit, the Liberty Stake. Several Apostles were sent to officially meet with these individuals and organize them as the Genesis Group. It was a wonderful opportunity for those members to finally have their own refuge, their own support group where they could share both their faith on the positive side, and their pain on the negative side, and enjoy the support that came from others of the same minority group.
In the early 1960s I was called to be a missionary to Brazil. The challenges we faced in that huge country, where the bulk of the population was mixed race, were tremendous. We were counseled by mission leaders to not seek out those who were obviously of African descent. However, if they genuinely wanted to know about the Church, we were to teach them. If they sought baptism, we had to explain the Church’s practice that would prohibit males in the family from receiving the priesthood. Banned from access to the temple was a moot point since none was nearby. During my 30 months in the mission, hundreds of such individuals, having great faith in the message of the restored gospel, sought baptism, no matter what. One of the most impressive people I worked with in Brazil was extremely dark black, a trained attorney, with an African name, Tupinamba, who translated several Mormon books into Portuguese. Although he was brighter than any of us missionaries and a natural leader, he unfortunately could not receive the priesthood. Eventually we lost him over this issue, although his white wife continued for some years afterward
From the early days of my mission until 1978, I prayed every day and fasted every month that the day would come when Blacks worldwide could receive the priesthood. It took 17 years of faithful pleading that they might receive all the blessings of the gospel such as leadership opportunities and temple marriages that I enjoyed. When the decision was announced by President Kimball, I conducted another fast of simple gratitude that the change had finally come!
While going to college I was also a fulltime seminary teacher in Utah. There were constant questions about the Church’s policy and doctrine regarding Blacks and the priesthood. Several of my colleagues in the Church Education System tried to defend the Mormon position, making up numerous justifications and theoretical interpretations of the scripture that they thought warranted such a position. But they were weak arguments and they all turned out to be invalid. My view was one of continual questioning and researching Church history, interviewing Church leaders, and wrestling with the issues.
I concluded that part of the problem was the early tensions between the U.S. North and South, which left the LDS Church caught in the middle of events leading up to the Civil War. I discovered that Joseph Smith had ordained Blacks to the priesthood, and that later, during the Utah years, that practice was halted. My personal view from studying the doctrines, the history, and my experience of the Salt Lake inner-city and of Brazil, was that we had no clear rationale, and to take a stand either way was problematic. On the one hand, I was becoming caught up in the civil rights movement of that era, and on the other, I was completely faithful to the Church. Thus, I would encourage my Seminary students to love their Black associates and to pray that a revelation would be received.
After receiving a Ph.D., my family and I spent another year and a half (1974-75) in Brazil, where I was a visiting professor. This time I got to know the people, not from a missionary perspective of trying to convert them, but as neighbors, friends, and university colleagues and students. The pressures were growing on the issue of race in the Brazilian LDS Church. Catholic associates, members of my Mormon congregation and Church leaders, continually raised questions about priesthood policy. A number of wonderful Church members dropped away as they were not able to maintain their faith in the face of what they perceived as institutional racism and personal discrimination by white members. Yet the reality was that the bulk of the Church in places like Rio were racially mixed. Many members were brown, not black, and others did not have African features at all. LDS families were having to conduct extensive genealogical searches in order for the males in the family to receive the Priesthood, yet most did not have access to records or documentation for even 2 or 3 generations back. I met blonde haired, blue eyed, German-speaking individuals in southern Brazil who appeared to be immigrants from Germany, and yet it was later discovered they had African ancestors instead.
On a personal level, my wife and I sought to adopt a Brazilian baby while residing there. When we did find a dark-skinned 18 month-old in an orphanage, we fell in love with him and signed the papers. We took Marcos to a Rio pediatrician for a checkup, and the doctor told us we were crazy. She argued that we were white, and the child was Black, poor, and obviously developmentally slow. She warned he would never survive in racist America, especially in a white-only Church, and that while we had advanced degrees, he would amount to nothing. That was when I first understood the extent of Brazilian racism. In the years since then, Marcos has done well in studies at the elite University of Pennsylvania, as well as at universities in Brazil and Italy.
It was in the middle of these racial dilemmas in Brazil that the Church announced the first temple in Brazil was going to be built in Sao Paulo. My former mission president, Finn Paulsen, was sent from Salt Lake to oversee construction and then become its first president. He continually worried about how temple officials were going to be able to determine who could enter and who couldn’t, based on skin color, based on what people said, based on their genealogy.
Thanks be to God, the June 8, 1978 revelation was announced just in time, as far as the temple dilemma was concerned. Some saw it as a practical solution, others a political one. I was living in Utah at the time, and I remember tears of gratitude and joy streaming down my face when I heard the news. I ran to a phone and called several of my Black friends. Some people at BYU were relieved that now the school’s football and basketball programs could return to business as usual rather than be boycotted by other universities. But Church members in Brazil, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and Africa, as well as those of us who were North Americans, who had lived in those countries and knew Latter-day Saints in those regions, had a deeper appreciation for the revelation. Now all worthy men of every race would have the privilege of being ordained to the priesthood, and all righteous members around the globe could now enter the temple and be married for eternity. Essentially, the Church had reached the tipping point. It was no longer a Utah religion, or even a white American one, but a global organization.
However, it was not just an opportunity for Third World saints. Since 1978, it has been so wonderful for me to see large U.S. congregations of mostly Blacks established in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and many other large urban areas, as well as throughout the deep South. I’ve visited many of them and at times given presentations to such groups, and I’ve always been struck by their strong faith. The same is true with numerous LDS wards and stakes in Canada and Europe where perhaps the largest groups being baptized there and in places like the UK, France, and Sweden are immigrants from Africa.
My question to readers is whether or not Latter-day Saints have evolved since the 1978 event. What do you think?
At times I have been deeply troubled by the existence of racism that still seems strong within some who claim their Mormonism as God’s truth. I recall several years ago when a neighbor came to our home on a Sunday afternoon. He informed me he was selling his house, but that I could rest assured, he wouldn’t sell it to non-Mormons or “Darkies.” I was shocked, as were my children. I informed him we would be happy to have African Americans in our neighborhood, that such diversity would enrich our lives, whether Black or LDS, or not. We had enjoyed great neighbors who lived next door to us in Ann Arbor years earlier. Yet he continued to press the fact that Black people would not be good for our ward. I asked him to cease such ideas, but he insisted. Finally, I said, “Bob, if you don’t stop your racist language, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” He became even more vociferous, so I took his arm and escorted him to the front sidewalk.
I was embarrassed, angry he would say such things, especially in front of my children. Over the years we had held a number of home evening lessons on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national holiday, or during Black History Month. We sang old spirituals and told of how Blacks had blessed our country with many great contributions down through history. Now a member of my high priest quorum was tearing minorities down and pressing his discriminatory views on my kids.
Today my kids are young adults, but the way they see Blacks portrayed in Utah is at times, still problematic. Earlier this year, a member of the Utah State Senate, Chris Buttars, made the ludicrous analogy about a bill he did not like by using discriminatory language knowingly, actions which became an affront to all decent Utahns, as well as to most Americans and citizens of the world. He called a proposed bill he didn’t like a “black…dark, ugly thing.” It was denigrating and racist to the core, and clearly offensive to anyone with ethics and values. Later, he reluctantly met with a Black Salt Lake congregation to apologize, claiming, of course, he meant no harm. On the other hand, he was also to meet with the Utah NAACP, but became afraid, and backed out of apologizing to that group.
The episode was much like Don Imus referring to the women of Rutger’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” Of course, Imus lost his job over those remarks. But not so, Butters. He manipulated his Republican colleagues so that they simply requested an apology on the senate floor for the “unintended” words used. This reinforced Buttars’ deep-down racism that was also manifest earlier in 2006 when he complained about the Brown vs. Board of Education laws to halt segregation in America. In those remarks he questioned why Black children shouldn’t just stay in their proper station in life—in broken-down schools with few opportunities in life.
To make matters worse, Buttars whined that his 2008 critics were becoming a “lynch mob.” Of course, this became a further rubbing it in of his bigotry. For him to think that merely brushing off his blatantly racist attacks as “innocent mistakes,” or “unintentional,” is the height of naivete. I guess Alabama had its racist official in the person of George Wallace. But he paid for his sins. Likewise, when the comedian, Michael Richards, who played Kramer on “Seinfeld,” spewed racist verbiage at a club, he was immediately fired. So why did LDS Utah legislators timidly tiptoe around this mess instead of cutting the cancer out? It seems a sad situation, to me.
Mr. Buttars is a card-carrying Mormon who goes to the temple near his West Jordan home. Yet he deceived himself, as well as the Republican officials who tolerated such shenanigans. State officials and elected representatives should have removed him from office in February, according to the official mechanisms for doing so. To not act, showed not only his cupability as a deceiver par excellence, but a con man who manipulates his legislative peers as well. Still, his colleagues exonerated him. Thus, some Utahns’ political donations started going to any and all groups who sought to beat him in the next election—whether Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Independents, or other Republicans.
Last month on May 3, just six weeks ago, Buttars received the support needed as incumbent at the Salt Lake County Republican Convention. At the last minute, Senate leaders officially endorsed him, apparently fearful a newcomer might not hold sway against a Democrat in November. Having a two-party system is a matter of much worry to state officials. They always prefer their party candidates, regardless of moral values. So although Buttars faced three other Republican opponents at the event, their supporters apparently split the opposition, and Buttars barely prevailed by winning 60.2 percent so he would not have to face a primary election. At least one of Buttars’ competitors was so troubled by the unethical Senate’s leadership, he is now campaigning for John Rendell, the Democrat who will challenge Mr. Buttars in the fall. Only in Utah!
In conclusion, what do readers think? Did the 1978 Revelation really change the mindset of insensitive, biased, and outright bigoted members of the Church? Should the Church do more to alter LDS attitudes? If so, what and how? What about Utah’s government officials? Can and should they do more? What else might be done by lay members like you and I to truly eliminate the last vestiges of Mormon racism?