The following guest post is from Dr. Warner Woodworth.
Latter-day Saints around the globe recently celebrated the 1978 Church announcement regarding the Priesthood being conferred upon all worthy males. For me it’s a time to pause in gratitude, remember that momentous event, and reflect on the days of struggle many of us, Black and Caucasian, went through to achieve a better, more egalitarian society. I sat in the tabernacle June 8, 2008 with a group of friends—African Americans, Polynesians, and Africans—as we shared recollections and listened to the program. One conclusion was that the event wasn’t black enough. We wanted more jumping up and singing, clapping, and a lot more energy. Said one, “When are you white Mormons going to break out of your stiff culture and let your hearts soar?”
I didn’t have an answer.
The experience brought back memories of the history and LDS culture from decades ago, and I wondered if changes have really occurred in terms of race within LDS society. During the late 1960s-early ‘70s, the University of Michigan where I sought a Ph.D. was a hotbed of activist protests about race in America. The Black Panthers came to speak on campus with their guns and guards. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), formed earlier by Tom Hayden and others at Port Huron, Michigan, spread across the country like wildfire, launching campus sit-ins, marches against the Vietnam War, and combating all forms of racism.
Tom and Jane Fonda came to one of my classes during my Ph.D. work and inspired us to organize a university-wide strike over race issues. We spent several months planning the strategies and tactics, building collaboration with fledgling Black activist groups on campus and then pushed to shut down the 40,000 student school. Our efforts were successful and the U. of M. was largely shut down for weeks. In response, the University ultimately announced new scholarships for Blacks, a commitment to hire minority professors, and approval to establish a Black Studies program. The school became an academic center for fostering Black music, art, poetry, and other cultural expressions.
I was the LDS Institute of Religion Director of a growing Mormon program in Ann Arbor, and enjoyed a certain notoriety for having shoulder-length hair, along with a full beard and moustache during those years. It was good to be a fairly long distance from CES offices in Utah.
These were the days of fighting segregation, of the heroic Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent push for social justice in our country. With other pastors and ministers in town, I participated in exploring how we as churches should address the problems of U. S. race relations. We invited minority church leaders to discuss their perspectives on white America. An organization called the Black Action Movement (BAM) consisting of radical Blacks began to confront religious leaders in New York, Detroit, and even in Ann Arbor. They had prepared a Black Manifesto and sought to read it in every church of any significant size. Upon discovering that the Mormon Church of Ann Arbor was on their hit list, we as local leaders decided to preempt their attack because we saw the damage done, the broken stained glass windows, the emotional turmoil caused in other churches BAM had confronted before us.
So we invited them to come and read the Manifesto and confront Mormons about our racist past through an official planned Sunday event. We spent a week preparing our members to not react angrily or accusingly, although we warned them that they would be attacked and accused by the radicals. Our concern was not so much the anger of BAM because it was to be expected. Instead, our concern was with our Mormon congregation–that our members act like Christians in response. We consulted with Church leaders in Salt Lake City, letting them know what we planned to do and asking if they had any advice. The Church’s Presiding Bishopric told us that they assumed we would soon be confronted anyway, and that by taking this initiative, hopefully things might turn out more positive than that of other religions. We told them BAM had broken into other churches and conducted sit-ins until the police came and arrested them, and we asked Salt Lake officials for advice. We were told to not call the police, but rather to send in the Relief Society with food for those conducting the sit-in, if that were to occur. There was to be no confrontation.
The big Sunday came and our chapel was packed to overflowing. Learning in advance of the upcoming event through the grapevine, LDS members came from not only Detroit, but also from Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. Some of them from other progressive college towns told us afterward that they fully expected that BAM was going to be ordained to the Priesthood that day in our ward. Instead, we listened as they read the Manifesto and criticized our past. Some of our members asked polite questions while others became defensive and said they weren’t responsible for the racist practices of their ancestors.
One woman stood up and suggested we stop sending our tithing to Salt Lake and instead use our offerings to establish an LDS fund to help provide jobs and education for African Americans in our community. After considering what to do over the following days, we eventually decided to continue paying our tithing to Church headquarters in Salt Lake, but to also establish a separate Black Action Movement LDS Fund to benefit local minorities. In the weeks that followed, I took our new BAM friends to several other Institutes of Religion in the region and invited them to participate with us in the BAM Fund, which they did.
During my five years in Michigan, I began training and advising companies throughout the state, as well as labor unions, city governments, and other organizations about how to value diversity, methods for creating improved race relations, and so on. I carried out action research projects, and with colleagues designed innovative strategies for conflict resolution. I worked to establish systems of joint problem-solving in which Blacks and whites, rich and poor, could begin to understand each other, build trust, and improve the quality of life for all. My partners and I began to see real change—in attitudes, structures of power, and community economic development. These efforts continued for many years after leaving Michigan during which I traveled the country and helped such groups as Ohio Black Muslims gain more equality and economic well-being.
I made the transition to becoming a new professor at BYU, and within a couple years the June 8, 1978 revelation was announced. 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 whites 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 around the globe, especially in Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil, and those of us 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.
For two decades I have worked with Brazilian business and government officials, NGOs, as well as LDS leaders, to foster the nation’s development. Most Brazilians are of mixed Black and white ancestry, and I can witness that the 1978 revelation has made a huge impact on the Church’s success in that huge country. Today there are over a million Mormons there, and in just a few more years that number will double, along with growing to 10 temples and 50 some missions. As near as I can determine, the 1978 decision gave the Church a major new thrust. Without the change, we would still be a much smaller, mostly U.S. institution with little, if any, global impacts.
Through the past 15 years-plus, I have had the wonderful opportunity in Africa to use my business and organizational consulting skills among urban Latter-day Saints in Kenya, and in rural Muslim villages of Mali. I have worked to establish programs, train and send young college-age Mormons to do village development, build schools, establish microcredit programs, and in other ways empowered the poor of Africa—whether Mormon, Muslim, evangelical, or animist. I have had the great blessing of recruiting donors who gave millions of dollars, designing systems and building best practices that strengthen family life and move individuals toward economic self-reliance. All together, we have impacted for good the poorest of the poor in Mozambique, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, and Ivory Coast. Others of my LDS friends have likewise dedicated years and more dollars to serve the poor of Tanzania, Ethiopia, and so forth. The restoration of the Priesthood to Blacks worldwide has inspired many of us in our efforts to reach out in a special way and give of our material resources, our personal time, our professional skills, and most of all our deep love for all of God’s children, Black and white.
On the significant day of June 8, 2008, as we commemorated the Church’s 30th anniversary of the priesthood announcement, it was exciting that it occurred during the same time frame that a 46 year-old Black man, Barack Obama, had won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States.
Yet the thrill of this occurring was diminished a few days later when I learned a white Utah couple, the Lawson’s, of West Jordan, was attempting to make money off Obama’s achievements by designing a sock monkey dressed in a suit with a presidential lapel pin for the candidate. The depiction appeared like America’s Jim Crow culture back in the Southern states of the 1880s when Blacks were depicted as apes. What were these people thinking? The typical white plea that they were naïve has done little to quell the national uproar. Their “SockObama” toy is clearly a caricature, not just of Senator Obama, but Blacks everywhere who are now offended and see Utahns as a century behind the times.
After massive negative reactions in the media and on the web, the Lawson couple apparently withdrew the product when their manufacturer, Binkley Toys Inc., stopped production. However, rumor has it they are planning a doll re-launch. Whether that happens or not, this episode made me wonder: When, if ever, will Utah project a new image as a more progressive place? We have recently suffered the embarrassing comments of LDS Republican Senator, Chris Buttars, about his view of a disliked law as “a dark ugly thing” What do readers think about these things? Do you see implications for us as a people?
A friend told me we will know that racial culture change in Utah has succeeded when there are Black bishops and stake presidents in the state, not just in metropolitan areas of the East or South. Another said that these types of crude bigotry are the very image Mormonism projects globally, a comment that hurts me to the core. It appears that the Church still has a way to go in impacting members’ attitudes about ethnicity. More importantly, we as Latter-day Saints must change ourselves—our biases, religious assumptions, and our personal behavior.
On the positive side, maybe there is a growing “the audacity of hope” among our members as we face the future. With Obama’s overwhelming primary presidential election win among Utah’s Mormon Democrats last February, perhaps it’s a sign of better days to come. Reflecting on those results, my guess is that not only is Martin Luther King, Jr. smiling down from heaven above. So is Joseph Smith!