Friday May 22: The first session we attend is titled “‘Who is Man to Change that Segregation?': Race in Twentieth-Century Mormon Culture, Practice, and Doctrine.” The title comes from a talk given at BYU by Apostle Mark E. Peterson. In the talk Peterson states: “I think I have read enough to give you an idea of what the Negro is after. He is not just seeking the opportunity of sitting down in a cafe where white people eat. He isn’t just trying to ride on the same streetcar or the same Pullman car with white people. It isn’t that he just desires to go to the same theater as the white people. From this, and other interviews I have read, it appears that the Negro seeks absorption with the white race. He will not be satisfied until he achieves it by intermarriage. That is his objective and we must face it. We must not allow our feelings to carry us away, nor must we feel so sorry for Negroes that we will open our arms and embrace them with everything we have. Remember the little statement that we used to say about sin, ‘First we pity, then endure, then embrace’“….
The first paper is given by Ruth Knight Bailey–beautifully. It addresses Indian identity and priesthood, and has fascinating case studies. Much of it is new information, and I’m intrigued.
The second paper is by Ardis Kay Smith. Using letters to the editor from BYU’s _The Daily Universe_ in the 1960s, Ardis keeps her focus on her title: “Is This Racial Freedom?” The letters address segregation and the priesthood restriction.
I was a child in Provo during the 1960s, and Darius was a student at BYU in 1965. As I read the letters Ardis has on the screen, some appalling and some pious, I find that I am actually getting sick. There’s even a bit of irony that the audience is all white–except for Darius. (In fact, he’s the only black person at MHA.) I wonder if this paper is hitting the others in the audience like it’s hitting me–if we’ll need to pass a bucket for people to throw up in. Of course, the letters are from white students. In 1965, Darius was one of two black students at BYU. The other, a woman, finally left after a group of students working on the grounds crew shouted racial epithets and threw apple cores at her. Darius, after being called in to the administration and told that parents had complained he had been conversing with their daughters and that he must not associate with white women, left BYU “on a dead run”, as he puts it.
Yes, some of the students encouraged “tolerance” and condemned prejudice in those letters to the editor. That attitude, however, often led to the view of black Mormons as exotic creatures–almost celebrities. You’d want to take one of them home to dinner to show how open-minded you were, and you’d probably relish the questioning looks from your parents. When Darius was asked in 1988 what the signal would be that blacks were truly equals in Christ’s church, he said, “When we cease to be exotic.”
The next paper is from Stirling Adams about the subject he knows well: _Mormon Doctrine_. Nobody knows that book and its history better than Stirling. He talks about the sections I am very familiar with–racial degeneration, etc. Though I am well-acquainted with the words, I find my head shaking over and over again. I am still feeling a little sick.
After the session, several people approach Darius and me offering to sign a petition or whatever it takes to get _MD_ off the shelves. They love Darius, and he is not being treated as “exotic.” He is known and respected.
In the afternoon, we show our documentary. This remarkable crowd of scholars gives us a standing ovation. I see that Darius is getting emotional as he looks over the audience, on their feet. His emotions make me teary as well. He dances a little to the song which finishes our doc: “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table…one of these days…I’m gonna tell Him how you treated me…one of these days…I’m gonna walk and talk with Jesus…one of these days…” We answer questions about our film. Our DVD sells out almost immediately, and Darius and I give each other a fist bump.
All day, through any session we’ve attended which related to race, I have been aware of who was speaking for Blacks throughout church history. It certainly wasn’t blacks themselves. Many white folks tried to define who blacks were and where their limits were set. A couple of books written by black Mormons came out during the sixties and seventies, mostly telling how faith got them through the hard issues. But the other Black voices, the voices pained by poverty and stripped to thin threads by restriction, voices which faith hadn’t saved–those voices were overwhelmed and muted by accusation. In the year Darius attended BYU, the Varsity Theater showed a film titled _Civil Riots_–about the Communist links to the Civil Rights Movement.
Friday evening: I find that I can access my e-mail in the hotel lobby. I open a note from my adopted missionary son, who’s serving in the Congo. (I adopted him when Bruce and I served in the MTC.) He has sent photos. There he is, a handsome white man accustomed to eating organic foods and working on political issues in California. Four African elders flank him. It seems they are dancing, though my adopted son looks a little lost. All are smiling. I have urged him to learn not just French but the dialects spoken where he is. Respect the people by learning whatever they call “our language.” Hear them in their own voices and using the words they speak most comfortably. Honor their words. Love the people. Let them move into your heart.