I am looking a copy of Look Magazine dated October 22, 1963. It is our modern-day equivalent of social media, claims a circulation of “More than 7,400,000, and says it is “America’s Family Magazine.
As I look through its 155 pages, it is filled with advertisements for automobiles, tobacco, alcohol, books, and life insurance. It has articles on Catholic Schools, pollution, the mafia, Georgia Tech football, and more.
The ads and articles seem to be focused on people. Indeed, one of the things that makes the magazine attractive are the photographs of people.
But, what you don’t see anywhere in the magazine is a single picture of an African American. Not one black person anywhere. Not in an Ad, and not in an article. I turned to the article on Georgia Tech football. Certainly, a football team from a state that is over 30% African-American should have someone black on the team. I closely examined each picture of the team, and of the opposing team from Duke University, and nope. There was nothing. From the pictures, it appears to be all-white.
I checked the civil rights history and found that Georgia Tech admitted its first 3 black students in the fall semester of 1961, just two years before this issue of the magazine was published. In fact, Georgia Tech was the first institution of higher learning in the Deep South to integrate peacefully, and without a court order. http://crdl.usg.edu/events/gatech_integration/?Welcome
This background makes it surprising that in this 1963 issue, we find an article titled Memo from a Mormon: In which a troubled young man raises the question of his Church’s attitude toward Negroes.
The author, Jeff Nye, writes that he was confused about “The position of the Negro in the Mormon Church.” He stated that he had been taught that “The Negro was cursed with loss of God’s priesthood and that the evidence, or mark, of this curse was his dark skin. Consequently, the Negro could not hold the priesthood in the Mormon Church…”
So, he was quite surprised by a Deseret News article where President Joseph Fielding Smith was quoted at length. President Smith said,
“The Latter-day Saints, so commonly called ‘Mormons,’ have no animosity toward the Negro. Neither have they described him as belonging to an ‘inferior race.’ ”
He went on to say, “the [Mormon] Church can do more for the Negro than any other Church on the face of the earth. “What other Church can baptize them by divine authority and confirm them and give them the gift the Holy Ghost? What other Church can promise them with assurance that they can if they are faithful and true before the Lord enter into the celestial kingdom?…
President Smith admitted, “It is true that the work of the ministry is given to other peoples, and why should the so-called Christian denominations complain? How many Negroes have been placed as ministers over white congregations in the so-called Christian denominations?”
Jeff Nye, the author, goes on to talk about the Book of Mormon saying, “The Book of Mormon thus offers testimony that Christ “denieth none,” regardless of color or race. It says nothing else to contradict this egalitarian view.” Nye then talks about how he struggles to reconcile the contradictory positions of the Church.
He says, “It is puzzling, unless one keeps in mind, the attitude of overwhelming apathy that Mormons seem to have toward Negroes. Unfortunately, the very existence of the present Mormon Negro doctrine adds to this apathy. In fact, it gives Mormons, a God-sanctioned reason for feeling superior to the Negro.”
He writes that as missionaries are exposed more to the realities of the race problem today, it might spur some change. He says, “If we Mormons believe that God is directing our Church, we can hope that God is preparing a new revelation that will revise our present Negro doctrine.”
THE EDITOR’S NOTE
At the end of the article is an editor’s note which says, “William B. Arthur, managing editor of LOOK, asked President Smith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to comment on the article [The Deseret News article that Jeff Nye read] during an interview with him last summer, in his office in the Mormon Church’s office building in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I stand by every word in the article,” President Smith said, after reading it aloud in Mr. Arthur’s presence. “The Mormon Church does not believe, nor does it teach, that the Negro is an inferior being. Mentally, and physically, the Negro is capable of great achievement, as great and in some cases greater than the potentiality of the white race. He can become a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist, and he can achieve great heights. The word ‘inferior’ is indeed unfortunate.””
All was fairly positive until the last paragraph of the editor’s note which states: ““The Negro cannot achieve priesthood in the Mormon Church,” President Smith said. “No consideration is being given now to changing the doctrine of the Church to permit him to attain that status. Such a change can come about only through divine revelation, and no one can predict when a divine revelation will occur.
“I would not want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the Negro. ’Darkies’ are wonderful people, and they have their place in our Church.”
I am not going to defend the last statement by Joseph Fielding Smith. If it was quoted correctly, it would certainly have no place in our time or culture. Of course, critics of the Church love the quote. All I can do is add some perspective by saying that Joseph Fielding Smith was born in 1876, just 12 years after the civil war ended. Right or wrong, things really were different. At the time of this article, he would have been 87 years old.
We have a mixed record on race. On one hand, I can show you many supportive and inclusive statements from Church leaders. We had a practice of non-segregation (which wasn’t always perfectly followed) and several black Americans had a significant impact on the beginnings of the Church. On the other hand, until recently we didn’t talk about black history within the Church. We were largely apathetic to the plight of black Americans. Until recently, black members were left without ties to the pioneers, and their history was largely ignored. One could say it was whitewashed, much like that Look Magazine from 1963.
How do we respond now when asked about race issues in our Church?
If we are asked if “Mormons, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are or were racist” a good response would be “Yes, of course!” Racism is one of the sins that we as a nation and world are trying to overcome. All cultures have had a history of “us and them” that often turns into racism. We as Latter-day Saints have not been exempted from that issue.
Is racism the reason for the priesthood ban? I can give you very good arguments on both sides of that question. You are free to decide for yourself. But, even more important, is that God gave us a revelation directing us in what we should do now. Isn’t it wonderful that when the revelation on priesthood was given the membership of the Church accepted and implemented that change immediately, with only a few minor protests. There are many stories of other organizations who struggled for many years to institute that level of integration.
While I am personally horrified by the stories of racism and segregation, I am grateful that I live in a time when we are working to move past those issues. We should be non-dismissive of civil rights history and the lack of opportunity faced by black Americans. I hope we will continue to grow until racism isn’t even a question, and we welcome our brothers and sisters with open arms.
The year 1963 might seem like a long time ago to you. But, it was in my lifetime. I am grateful for the progress that has been made, and I pray it continues.