Racial Strife – reflections on the Norfolk 17 and Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance

imageLast night our family attended a high school production of a new play, A Line in the Sand by Chris Hanna. The play tells the story of the Norfolk 17, black children who had petitioned to attend their neighborhood high schools in accordance with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

The State of Virginia decided to close the schools rather than admit black students. For months the children’s lives became polarized as the legal battles raged and individuals had to face the consequences of the resulting brinksmanship.

As with all high school productions, there was much to congratulate and much that could have been improved. The students had been encouraged to research the history of the situation, and the play had begun with comments from the perspective of the immediate aftermath of the black students being admitted to the white schools. In these brief statements, we were told that one of the students had been stabbed on her way to class, that she lay bleeding, while no one went to her aid. Unaware that this was not part of Chris Hanna’s original script, the members of my family waited in dread for the final scene which we presumed would show this confrontation.

However the play itself ended on a vaguely humorous scene of a black girl’s parents falling asleep the night before the landmark day when she would attend the white high school for the first time.

Perhaps if the play had been smoothly done, we would have been content with the knowledge we’d gained during the performance. Instead, we searched the internet from our seats, looking to find out what had really happened to the Norfolk 17.

We finally came across a series discussing Virginia’s policy of Massive Resistance, with a summary of the result when the Norfolk 17 began attending the white schools.

Despite the constant abuse, 16 of the black children completed their high school education within the white schools. The 17th, Delores Johnson, was stabbed while walking to class and ended up transferring to the black high school. While Delores may be the only one with physical scars, all the black children suffered severe emotional damage, including various forms of PTSD.

I couldn’t help contrasting the violent and bitter struggle for school integration with the joy almost all members of the Church reported when they were told of the 1978 revelation making the fullness of the priesthood available to all men, opening the temple ordinances to all families.

[Edited]In 1954 David O. McKay was said to have commissioned a study of the Priesthood Ban. The statement crafted under the administration of George Albert Smith had promised that at some future time the priesthood would be granted to all, but that the current ban was a matter of commandment. The 1954 study allegedly found that the ban was not based on doctrine, and therefore could be changed if President McKay felt the commandment had been lifted. However they also reported that it was clear the membership of the Church was not ready for such a change.[ref]Edward Kimball, Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood, p. 19, available online at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=7885, retrieved November 20, 2014.[/ref]

Likely sometime after 1954, David O. McKay was challenged about when blacks would receive the priesthood. Those familiar with President McKay report that he, of all men, would have been most pleased to lift the ban.[ref]Recounted by Paul H. Dunn to missionaries in the MTC, as conveyed by W. Bryan Stout.[/ref] And yet his hand was stayed, much to his frustration.

Into the 1950s and beyond, the highest leadership in the Church was open and supportive of reaching out to all races, despite the policy. Chieko Okasaki told of how these high leaders (including Ezra Taft Benson) were pleased to enroll their children in her class, though there were small-minded bigots who had refused to allow their children to learn from a Japanese woman. In the case of my Chinese aunt, N. Eldon Tanner was specifically assigned to protect her when her marriage to a white Elder who had served in Taiwan caused her to be attacked and slandered. When my white mother became engaged to a Chinese man, Sterling W. Sill advised against the marriage, warning of the dangers when individuals from such different cultures marry (Elder Sill’s concerns were all validated in my parents’ lives). Yet when my parents persisted in seeking a marriage that was not yet legal under Utah law, the Church still issued them temple recommends and their marriage in Los Angeles was a cause for great rejoicing for all in their student community.

Finally in the time of Spencer W. Kimball, the Church was united in a desire to have the ban lifted. For all the leaders, it was a source of concern and distress. For individual members, the ban was an embarrassment. No one wished the ban to continue. All looked forward with anticipation to a day when all could participate openly in the blessings of the gospel, despite the silly tales that had grown up over time to explain the reason for the ban.[ref]My husband, Bryan, was teaching at the MTC at the time. He describes the giddy excitement of the missionaries. Everyone was thrilled that the ban had finally been lifted.[/ref]

I can imagine a God who would insist the ban remain in place until we as a people had been sufficiently purified from our collective sins. I can imagine a God who wanted us to desire the removal of the ban with our whole hearts, to wish it removed as one might desire to remove a hair shirt, as one might desire to escape the tormentor’s lash. Only then could He entrust his beloved black children to our society. For me, this God would have us become purified in this one thing, that we might not scar our brothers and sisters the way the Norfolk 17 were scarred by their forced exposure to a reluctant white world.

The history of our past and the ban continues to serve as a hair shirt, to goad us to remain open, to remind us that we must not merely accept our brothers and sisters, but yearn for their deliverance.

Only as we live in accordance with such honest yearning will we remain pure and delightsome in His sight.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

9 thoughts on “Racial Strife – reflections on the Norfolk 17 and Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance

  1. “It was during the 1940s under the administration of George Albert Smith that a scholarly study of the rationale for the priesthood ban (barring black members of the Church from receiving the priesthood) was completed. The group concluded that there was no doctrinal reason for the ban, but that the membership of the Church was deeply divided over the issue.”

    Reference please.

  2. Hi Jettboy,

    The group was pulled together in 1940 and a formal statement was issued by George Albert Smith in 1949. Even though the formal statement did indicate past teachings that are offensive, I can see in that 1949 statement a significant push for the membership to realize that opening the priesthood to all mankind, specifically to black members, was a glorious future posibility.

    As for the article indicating that the study found that many in the Church weren’t ready, I’m pretty sure that was Edward Kimball’s extensive essay about the revelation his father did receive. The document is maybe 87 pages long, or something similar, if I recall correctly. I think you can find it via the blacklds.org but I think I originally read it as a result of critiquing the discussions/conversations from those agitating for female ordination. And those discussions/conversations are no longer easy to find from the website for that group of people. Though in trying to find the right pdf, I stumbled across the information that apparently Kate’s petition to have her excommunication overturned has been denied.

    [11/20/2014] Correction, the study was said to have occurred under President McKay’s administration, in 1954. See page 19 of Edward Kimball’s article (now referenced in the footnotes to this post).

  3. I lived through the era of testing and then final relief that Meg describes. As a teenager in the late fifties I was aware of the widespread resistance to extending Priesthood to black people of African origin and when I became engaged to a Chinese priesthood holder my mother, who was immersed in the academic culture of the U of U and was active in the Democrat Party to the extent that she anticipated voting for Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democrat Convention as a delegate from Utah, said the problem of my inappropriate attachment would be solved if the Church would simply remove the priesthood from all non-whites.
    I was one of those who cheered and wept tears of happiness when I heard of the revelation, yet by then I had begun to identify myself as a conservative on social matters such as abortion. I never considered the extension of the Priesthood to all worthy males to be a political response. It would have come earlier or not at all if that were the case.

  4. Hi Pat,

    Fascinating that in all the years I’ve known you, I didn’t know those details about your mother’s political leanings, nor that she advocated stripping all non-whites of the priesthood to “solve” her concern about your prospective spouse.

    The internet is delightful, isn’t it?

  5. Wow, I have family in Norfolk, VA and have lived there myself at one point. I had no idea about the Norfolk 17…I will have to ask my aunt and uncle about it as they would have both been attending school in Norfolk at that time. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. I lived in Montgomery, AL for almost 2 decades. When I was in the stake mission presidency in 1987, we decided the time had finally come to actively proselyte among the blacks. Within 2 years, over 150 blacks joined the Church in the stake. There was a lot of consternation by members. “Why can’t they lift themselves up by their own bootstraps?”, “that sister should not be teaching children in Primary”, “I will not be a home/visiting teacher in that neighborhood”. I had a high priest (who had been a bishop in Utah), refuse to home teach the black members.

    Fifteen years later in 2000, most of the stake were welcoming and accepting to the black members. Mixed race marriages were not a problem. Our branch in Tuskegee still struggled for leadership, but was making good strides.

    I’ve been blessed to know some of the early Civil Rights leaders, and to learn from them. I hope we continue to move forward in the Church in regards to blessing all members, and seeing all people as children of God.

  7. In Wrestling the Angle, Terryl Givens writes:

    “In the case of the priesthood ban, how Mormon leaders will finally resolve the possibility of a colossal mistake countenanced by ten LDS prophets remains to be seen, but if a resolution appears, it will signal a seminal moment in the Mormon theological tradition.”

    I submit what I’ve written in this post for Brother Givens’ consideration.

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